Last week, we started talking about how to get the most value out of a conference or event that you’re attending, and then communicate that value back to those at your office. Preparation before the event is key, but the next piece of the puzzle if about engaging at the conference itself.
This is something that we’ve talked about here at Zen before. in part, it’s about putting into place the preparation that you started before you left for the conference.
Attend all of the Sessions You’ve Identified in Your Review
Prior to the event, you’ve reviewed the agenda and identified the sessions that will have value for you, your firm and your colleagues. Now is the time to not only get to those sessions, but also to stay engaged in them – take notes, live tweet, write blog recaps, ask questions – whatever will keep you most invested in each individual session so that you stay focused on the takeaways is the key here.
Don’t assume that you’ll just remember the highlights either – use whatever notes system works best for you to get your impressions of the presentation or discussion down as it’s happening.
Don’t skip anything either, unless you’re fifteen minutes into a session and it’s clear that it’s either not going to be of value, or the content isn’t matching the session description. Then you can feel free to switch sessions or look to meet up with someone else from the conference. Don’t waste the free time here – use social media to identify where others are getting value, or to find someone to network with.
Connect with Everyone You’ve Arranged to Meet With
Similarly, while it’s important to attend all of the conference sessions, it’s equally important to make all of your meetings – and this may surprise you, but always exchange business cards.
Yes, it seems very 1999, but take their card and following the meeting, write down key notes on it to remind yourself of the things you discussed. You can input these later into your CRM system or even right into LinkedIn now with their new "Relationship" tab. No matter how good your memory is, you’ll meet enough people during the conference that a detail or two may slip your mind that could make a difference in the strength of that future relationship.
If you haven’t already, following the meeting, connect with them on LinkedIn as well, and mention something about your conversation to remind them of who you are. Make it an open-ended question that invites further conversation to keep the dialogue going.
Continue to Engage with Social Media
Even though you’re going to be seeing people in person and developing those relationships, social media can continue to supersize your conference experience while you’re there as well. So continue to use social media to engage with the other attendees, speakers and organizers – find out where fellow attendees are gathering for dinner or drinks, source a ride from the airport to the hotel with someone from Twitter (GREAT networking opportunity, by the way), get feedback on other sessions, and more.
It adds greater depth to the conference and multiplies your networking efforts. Plus, if you’re able to manage a recap blog post or two during the conference, you can share them using the social media channels and watch others read and share them, and use that as an opportunity to invite them to meet with you to chat further.
And of course, you want to keep using your conference app & jot down notes for your reviews when you return.
But engaging during a conference isn’t only about implementing your pre-conference prep – there are a couple of other important tips to keep in mind.
- Avoid your hotel room: I’ve said this before – I was terribly guilty of hiding in my hotel room for the first few years I attended LMA (and even during ILN conferences!). I’m a shy introvert, so it’s difficult for me to introduce myself to people I don’t know and insert myself into conversations.
Social media was immensely helpful for me in this, because in connecting with people before the conference, I was able to get to know a group of friends online who I felt comfortable joining up with immediately at the conference. That then opened the door for additional networking. Fortunately, some of them are also extroverts, so they also push me to introduce myself to new people and to never hide in my hotel room when I could be out networking instead. In order for a conference to be valuable, you’ve really got to be engaged with it – and that’s not possible if you’re alone in your room.
- Don’t skip anything: Along those same lines, this is a big one – don’t skip ANYTHING. You or your firm have paid for you to attend this conference, so you need to be attending it – unless you are meeting with a client (which is the only thing to take precedence), you should be in the sessions and at the networking functions. NO EXCUSES.
I’ve seen people skip things because they’re tired, they’re not interested in them, they think it’s not relevant, etc – but at the very minimum there will always be other people there with whom you can connect, network and even commiserate. And you can’t put a price tag on that. If you skip sessions or networking opportunities, you will never know who you missed out on sitting next to, who you may have bumped into at the coffee station, what nugget of wisdom you may have heard from the presenters, or even what you may have learned NOT to do. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be present when you’re at a conference.
If you’re in an incredible city and you want the opportunity to experience it, and the conference just seems to jam-packed, add on an extra day for sight-seeing and time with colleagues and friends. My legal marketing friends and I do this, so that if we need to miss a dinner during the conference with each other, we know that we have that extra time to connect – and then we don’t miss out on other valuable networking opportunities. Plus, you’re further reinforcing relationships with others in the group on a smaller level, which is a bonus chance to network.
- Never dine alone, but it’s okay to mix it up: Along with hiding in my hotel room, I also ate a lot of in-room dining those first couple of years as well, and that was another mistake. Meals are one of the best opportunities for networking, because even when you don’t know anyone, you can always talk about the food.
There will never be a conference you attend where there are no other first-timers or attendees coming who don’t know another soul – you’ll often be able to spot them on the outskirts of the room. Most conferences will have an opening or first-timers reception for that reason, and if there are no scheduled meals for the group, just find one of those people, start chatting with them, and see if they’d like to grab dinner. Even if you just get a quick meal at a hotel restaurant, it’s a new connection for you.
Check social media too – often, groups will post their meal plans there and ask others to join them. Or you can post that you’re new and looking for a group. Friendly people will invite you to join them, and before you know it, you’ll have forgotten that it’s your first time at the event!
But for those of you who AREN’T first-timers, remember too to mix it up – don’t always eat and spend time with the same people. While it’s important to reinforce the relationships you’ve developed in the past, and you certainly don’t want to be a drive-by marketer handing out your card and heading off to the next "victim," you also don’t want to spend an entire conference with the one other person from your firm or home city that you already know and see regularly.
Branch out a little. Say yes to the vendor dinner or reception you’ve been invited to. Go along with a friend to a party you won’t know anybody at and meet their friends. Sit at a different table for lunch. It may be uncomfortable, or you may walk away with an entirely new group of contacts and friends!
- Wear your name tag: For a several day conference with a small group, name tags can become unnecessary as you get to know one another. But for larger conferences, you pretty much want to keep your name tag on all the time, whether you’re in sessions or not – the reason is that everywhere you are becomes a networking opportunity.
Heading to breakfast in the elevator? Someone else with the same name tag steps on to the elevator and you have an ice breaker immediately. Catch someone’s eye in the lobby and notice they have a conference name tag? Another opener. Grabbing coffee at the same Starbucks? Again, another opportunity. You never know when you might meet someone interesting and have a great conversation.
- Hang out in the lobby: This is some advice from my mom, actually, and it’s served me well. With wifi being so readily available these days, we’re no longer tethered to our rooms and internet cables. So if you have to do some work, but don’t require absolute quiet or you just have some free time, find a comfortable chair in the lobby or a public space and hang out. You’d be amazed by who you run into because you’ve made yourself available by not hiding in your room.
And as long as you’re wearing your name tag, people will also know that you’re part of the conference, and may feel comfortable chatting with you. It also gives you a place to meet people if you mention on Twitter as you’re working that you’re sitting in the lobby and invite people to come and join you there. Make any downtime a possible networking opportunity, and it will truly maximize your conference experience.
The above sounds exhausting – I know – and it is. But when you think about a conference as a marathon of networking and education, rather than small opportunities in between rest and sightseeing, you’ll be prepped and ready for it (that also means, rest up in advance!). The more you can squeeze out of a conference in terms of networking and education, and then share that when you return (the focus of our next post in this series), the less you’ll have to convince anyone that your attendance at conferences and events is a worthwhile investment!