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10 Tips to Get the Most out of Attending Conferences

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It’s conference season (isn’t it always? — there’s always something happening) so time to dust off your networking skills and get prepared for your industry conference.

Get conference ready

The more preparation you put into any event before you go, the more you will get out of it, whether that’s a small social gathering at work or a huge industry congress.

You make a big investment in going to conferences so it helps to do a bit of thinking and planning about how to benefit while you’re there. Here are some helpful tips to help you prepare for attending a professional conference.

Before you go

1. Pack light

What should you bring to a professional conference? Take the minimum amount of stuff with you.

Take a small notebook. I love this Moleskin notebook but a cheaper spiral bound notebook is also a good option as it lies flat on your lap while writing.

Any good conference organizer will provide copies of slides and blank paper for notes but you want to have something to write your own notes on when not in a session.

Don’t load yourself up with unnecessary things and keep your handbag small.

One exception to that rule: if you are going to a big event where there will be an exhibition hall full of stands, pack a fold-away bag for all your freebies and documents. You won’t be able to walk past a stall without getting a host of leaflets (and samples if you are lucky) thrust at you.

Even if you are just going to a day of sit-down lectures, there will still be lecture notes, pens and company flyers for you to take away.

2. Charge your gadgets

If you are going to take notes on a tablet or expect to tweet live from the event using your phone, make sure they have enough power. Being tethered to a power socket in the corridor of a hotel is not a good look.

You want to get the most out of the conference, so you don’t want to be stuck at the charging station when you could be networking!

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3. Review the schedule

Save yourself time on the day by working out which presentations you want to see. This is especially important if your conference has multiple tracks (or streams).

Review the schedule. Research the topics or the speakers. Plan your conference day around the events that you most want to see and be prepared to be flexible about the others.

If you don’t see anything on the schedule that inspires you, take the hour off. It’s OK to sit in the lounge area, peruse the exhibition hall or get to the front of the coffee queue while everyone else is in presentations, as long as you still feel you are getting value for money from the day.

Conferences are an investment in yourself and your career. Don’t waste them.

4. Get business cards

One important step for preparing for a conference is to get some business cards if you don’t already have them.

Pack business cards to hand out at every (relevant) opportunity, and so you don’t look out of touch when someone asks for yours while giving you theirs.

Mine are from Moo and they are very good quality and I have uploaded lots of pictures to go on the back. They are also handy to drop into free prize draws if you accept the fact you will then get email newsletters from the company forever and a day (unsubscribe as soon as you can if you don’t find them interesting – there is no shame in just entering the contest for the free stuff).

When you are given a business card, write a description of the person on the back (when they aren’t looking, obviously) so that when you get home you have a fighting chance at remembering who was who.

5. Make a hit list

Here’s my top networking tip for attending a conference: prepare a hit list of who you want to meet or spend time with.

Conferences aren’t only about the presentations. You’ll also have coffee breaks, lunch and movement between groups to find yourself pressed into talking to strangers. Chatting to them is networking (and you can read here why networking is important for your career) so plan in advance who you want to talk to.

It might sound daunting, but the alternative is hanging out with the colleagues you attended with and see every day anyway – not much new to learn from them. Or being the loner in the corner – nothing wrong with that either, and I do like to build some ‘alone’ time into my conference days, but too much of that turns into a wasted opportunity.

Before the event, you’ll be able to see the speaker list and many people will be sharing whether they are attending or not on their social media pages. Or you could just ask if they will be there – email or tweet them.

Conferences are a great opportunity to meet people you’ve only chatted to on social media and pre-arranged meetings like that give you something to do in the breaks.

Make a list of the people you want to see and warn them in advance that you’ll be seeking them out!

On the day

6. Wear your badge

Make it easy for people to start a conversation with you. Wear your name badge with pride. Women, wear a neckline that’s appropriate for people looking at your chest all day if it’s the type of badge that pins on.

Pro Tip: If your badge is on a lanyard consider tying a knot in it to make it shorter so it doesn’t dangle round your middle. That’s a tip for short people like me 🙂

Never pin your badge to your waistband – no one will be able to see it which makes it harder for them to start conversations with you.

7. Edit your badge

It’s OK to take your badge out of its plastic holder and write something on it. I have added my Twitter handle (@girlsguidetopm) to many a conference badge. If the details on your badge are pretty meaningless, add something else, like your department.

Write big though, those badges are hard enough to read as it is.

The point of displaying your name badge is to make it easy for people to start chatting, and for them to see if they have anything in common with you. Much of the benefit of conferences is in the informal networking.

8. Give out your business cards with care

You’ve packed your business cards, so use them. But don’t force them on people. My rule is that if someone asks for my contact details then I will give them a card.

I don’t offer them routinely to people I meet in the lunch queue because I know that if it was me I wouldn’t want to receive them.

Have your phone available too so you can snap a picture of their name badge and then look them up later to connect on LinkedIn.

9. Annotate the cards you receive

Write some identifying features on the back of business cards that you receive. You’ll probably be coming home with a bunch of them, and if you’re like me you won’t be able to remember who was who.

Jot down what you talked about and what the person looked like on the back of their card so you remember.

Also write down anything you said you would do for them. This is really important if you want to build credibility with your new contact, so if you said you’d send them a link to the article you talked about, then write down your promise on their card and follow up when you’re home.

10. Work through your hit list

You should have made a list of the exhibitors you want to see before you left home. It saves you valuable time when you arrive, especially if the exhibition floor is large.

Now’s the time to go and visit the stands of the companies you have highlighted.

First check that they have actually turned up. I normally do a sweeping tour of the exhibition hall to see who is there, then I can plan who to go back to. Use the floor plan in your conference program to tick off the stands you have visited.

If you’ve arranged to meet anyone at the conference, tweet or text them to let them know that you’ve made it and to confirm details. I have sent someone a selfie before so that they knew who they were looking for – event rooms can be quite crowded so make it as easy as possible for someone to find you.

Bonus Tip: Bail out of the wrong presentations

You’ve chosen your sessions and you’re sitting in a presentation. The speaker begins and… you realize that this is nothing like you expected.

It’s not pitched at the right level for you. You aren’t going to learn anything. Or the speaker is talking about something really interesting but in a delivery style that is going to have you asleep in the next 5 minutes.

Get up. Walk out. Speakers are used to it and won’t take offense. You’ve made the investment to come to a conference and you owe it to yourself to get the most out of your experience. That doesn’t include sitting through talks that aren’t your thing.

Find another speaker in another room and sneak in at the back!

I used to find it really awkward to go to conferences, but over time I’ve picked up some tricks and tips that make it much easier. If you struggle to network at events, I can help.

My ebook, Better Networking Skills, is a straightforward, easy-to-implement guide to being a more confident networker.

how to do networking ebook

Conference FAQ

What is the dress code for a professional conference?

Check your joining instructions. Most will be smart casual. You could be in an air conditioned building to take a sweater or wrap in case you are cold.

What should I bring to a conference?

Bring a notebook and a couple of pens, business cards, a list of who you want to meet or stands you want to visit, your phone and charger and a big smile!

What do I do after attending a conference?

Follow up with the people you met. Send out LinkedIn invitations if you want to keep in touch with them. Compile your notes from sessions and share key learnings with your team.

About Elizabeth Harrin

Elizabeth HarrinElizabeth Harrin is a Fellow of the Association for Project Management in the UK and the award-winning blogger behind A Girl's Guide To Project Management. She's passionate about demystifying project management and making tools and techniques work in the real world. She's also the author of several books including the PMI bestseller, Collaboration Tools for Project Managers.

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