5 Ways To Conquer That Conference

Last Updated Oct 28, 2011 10:35 AM EDT

I love professional conferences. I try to go to several each year, which is certainly a change from a few years ago, when I used to avoid them. I considered them a waste of time. Why? The panel discussions were rarely enlightening, there are only a certain number of rock star keynote speakers and the exhibit halls? A scary insight into that grabby part of human nature that gets excited about anything because it's free.
But then I had a realization: the panel discussions are not the point of the conference. Just as shrimp are largely an excuse to eat cocktail sauce and sushi rolls an excuse for soy sauce and wasabi, the panels and speakers are mostly just an excuse to get everyone there in one place. The point of a conference is to meet new professional contacts in person and reinforce the virtual relationships you already have.

Viewed in this light, a conference where you were on your iPhone (and not live tweeting) during most of the sessions, but in which you had five real, productive conversations in the hallways, was actually a big win. Here's how to get the most out of a conference:

1. Identify your targets. Who will be there that you want to meet? This could be someone on a panel you were hoping to be introduced to, or could be a friend of a friend, or an old colleague who's now at a new company you'd like to learn more about.

2. Figure out logistics. If you'll need an introduction, arrange when this could happen. Ask people you know only by email for a phone number so you can meet up. Make coffee dates. Make breakfast dates. Cram in as many as possible!

3. Don't be shy. I'm not good at this one. I went to the Pennsylvania Conference for Women this last week, and wanted to meet Martha Beck (one of the keynote speakers) in person. Then I found myself standing near her in the hallway... and didn't react quickly enough. Whoops.

4. Don't be shy, part 2. If the point of the conference is to meet people, then you should, you know, meet people. Introduce yourself to the people sitting around you in the sessions. Get everyone's cards at your table at lunch. Feel free to walk up to any group at the cocktail hour. Think about it - would you be upset if someone came up and introduced herself to you? Doubtful. You'd think it was kind of cool. You might even be grateful if she saved you from another awkward cocktail party conversation.

5. Skip the swag. Yes, this is just my personal pet peeve, but conference swag has a way of cluttering up your house for months afterwards. It also has a way of distracting you from your main mission at a conference. Sure, walk around the exhibit hall. But do so to meet other people walking around, not to get the free pen. Though if the lunch was terrible, feel free to grab any free food on offer.

How do you make the most of conferences?

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Photo courtesy flickr user Texas Military Forces