Not another conference?

Why I’ve changed my approach to get more out of conference season.

Been to any good conferences lately?

On May 25th, I’m off to one in London. It’s called the Market Research Summit. It has an impressive range of speakers and promises some thought-provoking sessions - I’m really looking forward to it.

In recent years, I’ve spent lots of time at all sorts of industry conferences, sometimes presenting, but more often just sitting in the audience. I’m sure many readers of this post will be the same.

But for every conference I’ve been to, there have been many more that I could have attended if I had the time, inclination and budget – like many industries, mine certainly loves a good conference.

A few conferences I’ve attended have been consistently outstanding, but most tend to offer a handful of highlights at best, with the rest being rather forgettable.

Previously I’ve tended, rather simplistically, to associate a forgettable conference experience with a low-quality conference, conveniently absolving myself from any role in this equation.

But is taking such a passive approach really the best way to get the most out of a conference? I’m starting to think maybe not.

I’m now increasingly of the opinion that the more you put into a conference, the more you are likely to get out of it. And that starts well in advance of the conference itself.

So, to ensure I get the most out of future conferences, I’ve developed my very own five-point plan:

1. Be highly selective about which conferences to attend in the first place

An obvious starting point, but go for quality, not quantity. Ask yourself…have I been to this conference before and found it worthwhile? If not, who has put it together? What is their track record? Do I know anyone who has attended before and can give me a point of view? Who is speaking? Are they inspiring speakers? Which companies are represented? What is the key conference theme? Is it different to anything else that I could find elsewhere?

Overall, I ask myself whether I will feel I have significantly missed out if I don’t attend this particular conference. Unless the answer is a resounding ‘yes’, then I can probably let it go.

2. Be clear about what you are hoping to learn there

Be honest with yourself – what are your real motivations for going to this conference? Try to ensure that this is based around learning something new. Ask yourself…within the overall theme, what specific topics would I like to learn more about? Are there sessions that promise to address this? What are the credentials of the people presenting these sessions? Does the advertised content look inspiring and challenging?

The most effective conferences I have attended in the past have helped deepen my knowledge of a few topics, rather than reinforcing my existing knowledge across a wider range of topics.
3. Be clear about who you would like to meet with while you are there

Of course, another good reason for attending a conference is to network. But here again, this can become a lot more effective if you are clear of your objective beforehand. Ask yourself…who would I like to talk to at the conference? Speakers? Other delegates? What do I want to talk to them about? What am I hoping to achieve from that interaction? What can I offer them in return? Can I contact them in advance to let them know I’d love to chat to them and explain why. Does the conference facilitate meetings with other attendees?

Conferences are a great opportunity to catch up with industry colleagues, but can also become a catalyst for starting new relationships, as long as you do some pre-planning.

4. Be active in your listening and action-oriented in your note taking

Note-taking can help extract more value from the event, whilst also keeping you actively engaged. But how often do you return from a conference with pages of notes that you never look at again? Or do you take so few notes that you are left to rely on your memory? I've found that the best notes are those that help you take specific action afterwards, whether that be to research a topic further (referenced websites, books, articles), contact someone (the speaker, companies mentioned), update an existing knowledge base (your website, blog, credentials) or otherwise act upon.

At your next conference, why not try writing down just the things that you can honestly see yourself acting on afterwards and nothing else?

5. Give yourself a deadline for any post-conference follow-up

It’s too easy to file away positive thoughts about a conference in your mental follow-up list, but then never get around to it. Why not make conference follow-ups a priority next time? Thanking the organisers, contacting everyone you spoke with and, if appropriate, suggesting a further discussion, requesting copies of the best presentations, actioning your 'actionable notes', reading further around the most interesting topics raised, maybe even writing a blog post to help crystallise your thoughts. And do it all within 48 hours of the conference ending.

If you treat the post conference period as diligently as the lead-up, you should consolidate the value of the conference and also establish it as a stepping stone to new opportunities.

Whilst I’m sure most of us already do a lot of this, I wonder how often we actively prepare for a conference in advance when we are attending as just another member of the audience.

Do we put as much thought into our attendance as we might put into, for instance, a new business meeting? Because that is what it could turn out to be.

Hands up, I know I haven’t always done so in the past, but I certainly plan to do so more diligently in the future.

So, if you’re going along to the Market Research Summit 2017, please do let me know.

Better still, contact me in advance, directly or via the conference’s ‘speed dating’ app Brella and let’s arrange to meet - I’d love to tell you a little more about my impending new venture and how it might be of interest to you.


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