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Susan Milstrey Wells

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No Regrets: Make Professional Conferences Count

We’ve all been there. We eagerly anticipate the professional conference we’ve waited months to attend. We choose our sessions carefully. We take notes, gather handouts, and amass a handful of business cards. We “do lunch” with colleagues and attend networking events. We leave tired but certain we’ve gotten our money’s worth.

Then we return to work. The business cards and handouts sit forlornly in a corner of our office as we respond to urgent requests from bosses and clients. Our enthusiasm begins to fade, as do the names and faces of the people we met. We eagerly anticipate our next conference.

Sound familiar? Can we break this cycle and truly make these conferences worth the time and resources that we and our agencies invest? I pondered this question on the train home from my most recent conference—a wonderful gathering of writers who came from across the United States and around the world. What follows are my thoughts, and I’d love to hear yours.

  1. Take care of yourself. This can’t be overstated and is important on any kind of business trip. Wear comfortable shoes; especially at large conferences, you may be walking quite a distance between sessions. Dress in layers. Some rooms will be ice cold; others will be stifling. Eat as healthy as you can (says the woman who ate cookies at every break because they were there). Drink plenty of water. Try to get a good night’s sleep. To block loud or unfamiliar sounds, consider taking a white noise machine or download an app to your phone. I have even been known to pack my favorite feather pillow! If possible, stay at the hotel where the conference is being held; you might appreciate having a few minutes to run up to your room and rest or freshen up. Finally, if you have the luxury to do so, take a day or even a half a day off before and after the event. This makes it easier to arrive rested and gives you time for important follow-up activities, as noted below.
  1. Start a table. We all know that networking is the name of the game at conferences. But how many of us have lunch in hand while we look around for friendly faces? Especially if you arrive early to lunch or a break, try starting your own table. It’s fun to see who will sit with you. My husband calls this “sitting under the piano.” Someone is bound to want to know why you are there, and you might just be the friendly face someone else is seeking. At networking events where others are table hopping, I often will stay seated and find that three or four different groups of people join me over the course of the evening. If you are attending with a group of colleagues from your office, try splitting up so all of you can meet someone new.
  1. Code your notes for follow up. If, like me, you are a copious note taker, you may come home with pages filled with all manner of interesting thoughts and ideas. But where is that website you must visit or the name of the book you want to buy? As you are taking notes, star anything that warrants follow up. Or use a highlighter or tape flags—whatever will make it easy to find what you need. Then—and this is the difficult part—follow up! Block out time with yourself. Add “conference follow up” to your calendar and tick off starred or highlighted material in your notes. You’ll thank yourself later.
  1. Reach out to new colleagues. Sometimes attending a conference is like going on a blind date. You meet someone new, promise to stay in touch, and never call or write. But some of the folks you meet might become valued colleagues or lifelong friends. Even if you only do one or two a day, send “good to meet you” emails or connect on LinkedIn as soon after the event as possible. To make this easier, gather business cards or circle names on the participant list of people with whom you want to be in touch. You might also add something about the person (attended the same college, has a great system for managing emails, etc.) to help you personalize your note. But be aware if you are attending an international conference or meeting individuals from other countries that there is an etiquette to exchanging business cards. I blithely made notes on a few cards I was handed, but this would be an insult to a person in China.
  1. Fill out the evaluation form. I’m guilty of skipping this more times than I can count. But especially if this is an annual event and you plan to attend again, let the organizers know what worked and what didn’t. Arranging a large event can take a year’s worth of planning, and your feedback can be invaluable. Was the venue acceptable? Did the speakers deliver? Was there enough time for networking? What would you like to learn about next time? If much of the planning is done by volunteers, you might offer your services. And if you have a skill or special expertise you want to share, by all means let the organizers know. They may be only too glad to take you up on your offer!

How do you make the most of professional conferences?

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