How to Survive (and get the most out of) a Conference

If you had told me ten years ago, when I was working for a local newspaper covering local news and never really going anywhere, that one day I would be traveling all over the country (and the world) to attend and speak at conferences, I would not have believed you. Or, if I had, I would have dreaded my future.

They seem so boring. A bunch of people getting together at an event center or hotel convention center, droning from room to room, standing at booths and wearing name tags. I mean, no thanks, right?

And my first couple of conferences were very much like I just described – unpromising, unfulfilling, unrewarding, un, well, fun. But over the last few years, I’ve grown to appreciate and even enjoy attending conferences and it’s all because I’ve observed or created a few ‘rules’ for getting the most out of my time.

I won’t belabor the preamble here, just know that these methods are not definitive, but I have tested them at conferences ranging from auto shows to blogging conferences, South-by-Southwest to the Sturgis motorcycle rally and they’ve worked pretty much every time. Not exactly scientific proof, but not without testing either.

Here we go.

1. Get there early, scope it out and leave

I like to arrive at the venue as early as possible – the night before, the morning of, whatever is most practical. I get checked into my room, pick up my badge and wander the venue. I take note of the room locations, where the bathrooms and refreshments are, where the show floor is. If I’m there early enough and have an idea of a vendor I would like to visit I might even see if I can help them set up. It never hurts.

2. Make a Hit List

This is a list of attendees or exhibitors that I absolutely cannot leave without connecting to. This list keeps me honest and on track. Keep the list relatively small and manageable, especially with people. No more than one or two. If you want to meet them, so too do a lot of people and you can’t control other people’s schedules.

3. Limit Your Schedule

Limit? Really? Shouldn’t you try to maximize your time? Probably, but do that when you get there. I’ve met a lot of people with grand plans to attend sessions or talks like books stacked on a shelf. It never works out for them. Or, if it does, they end up missing the best part of a conference – the place where all the work gets done…

4. Work the Halls

Talks and panels and presentations are good, great even. But business gets done in the hallways. It’s where connections are made, where ideas are shared in a way that they can actually come to life. I was recently at a conference attended by Chris Brogan. In three days, I saw him out of the hallways twice – both times he was presenting. Instead, he spent most of his time meeting new people, but more importantly, introducing people to one another.

5. Be a Connector, not a Vacuum

I like nothing more than meeting a new person, learning a little about them and introducing them to someone who they should know. I take a lot of personal satisfaction from it, but more than that, I derive a lot of value from it. I’ve met lots of people at conferences over the years that want to hoard, to Hoover attention and connections into themselves. Don’t do this. Conferences are designed for connection, inspiration and insight – all three of which must be shared in order to be useful.

6. Pack Light

You’re not going to get work done on your lunch break. You probably don’t need that extra battery, the iPad, iPod and twelve notebooks. Leave them in your room or, better yet, at home. The less time you spend with your eyes down at a conference, the more likely you are to follow #5.

7. Leave the Swag

I like free stuff as much as the next guy, but how important are those cheap sunglasses and how badly do you need three pairs? Travel light, leave the freebies for the newbies and focus on building relationships.

8. The Things to Carry

Keep it simple:

  • Two Pens (one will get stolen)
  • A Notebook (the only swag worth taking)
  • A Smartphone with the following:
  • Evernote Premium, which allows you to scan business cards, take pictures and make notes
  • A unique cover – for some reason it’s great conversation starter.
  • An empty hard disc. Take pictures, record interviews. I like to use a Blue Mikey running through Garage Band for quick and dirty podcasts on my phone or iPad.

9. Learn, Listen, Do

The last conference I went to, I met a guy who could have been terribly interesting. He had a fascinating job, a fascinating story and a horrible attitude. It was obvious to me that the guy just wanted to give his talk and get the hell out of there. I wanted to talk to him, to ask him questions. He gave one word answers and wouldn’t look me in the eye. This isn’t social awkwardness- that can be forgiven. This was idontwanttobehereness, which is the wrong attitude to have for a conference. I tend to skip a lot of big speakers and focus on small group sessions, work sessions, discussions. Why? Because I’m there to interact, not to absorb. Some people may like to listen. The point is that you engage.

There’s some sort of weird space-time thing that happens at a conference. If you’re involved, the days fly by. If you are timid, they drone. Get involved. Get specific. Make connections- for yourself, sure, but mostly for others. And, for Gods sakes leave the swag behind.

Do you have any conference survival tips? Contact me below or hit me up on Twitter @cheimbuch.

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