Attending work-related conferences can be useful or useless, depending on how you approach them. Approach them right and you can pick up new skills, learn about trends in your field, and make valuable networking contacts. Approach them wrong and they can end up merely being long, boring days away from home.
Here are 12 tips for getting the most of conferences.
1. Read through the agenda ahead of time and figure out what sessions you want to attend. Realize that you probably won't be able to attend a session in every time slot throughout the day, so prioritize the ones you most want to attend. If you're attending with a co-worker, consider dividing them up so that between the two of you, you're covering more sessions. Similarly ...
2. Read the exhibitors list ahead of time and make a list of people and companies you want to speak with. Otherwise, in a large exhibition hall, you may get overwhelmed and never make it to the people who you most wanted to talk to.
3. Ask questions in the sessions you attend. Don't be shy about questioning the speakers about points you're especially interested in or would like clarified. In fact, you're actually doing the speakers a favor by asking questions; most speakers dread having disengaged audiences, and there's nothing worse for a speaker than asking for questions and finding a silent room.
4. Practice introducing yourself in one sentence. You're going to be doing this over and over when you meet new people, and you want it to be polished.
5. Bring business cards. You might not use cards much in the rest of your work life, but you'll go through dozens at a conference when you're meeting new people. And you'll collect dozens too, so make sure to make a few notes on the back of each so that you remember who each person is once you're back at your office.
6. Be approachable. Don't spend all your time outside of conference sessions using your phone or immersed in reading material. By looking around you and looking open and engaged, you'll make it more likely that someone else looking for someone to talk to will approach you.
7. Don't be afraid to approach people yourself. Conferences are filled with people hoping to meet someone to talk to. You don't even need an excuse; you can simply walk up and introduce yourself and ask about the other person. You can also ask whether they've been to any good sessions or have found any decent coffee nearby.
8. Wear comfortable shoes. You're going to do a lot of standing around talking to people, and you might even end up standing in some sessions if they're packed. And if the conference is in a large hotel or other large venue, you'll do a lot of walking to get from your room to the conference halls, meals and so forth.
9. Don't make nonwork plans for the evenings. You might think that traveling to a conference will be a great opportunity to catch up with your friend who lives in that city, but lots of networking will happen in the evening, often spontaneously. You want to be available for that last-minute dinner or outing.
10. Bring snacks in your purse or briefcase. Conferences often offer only overpriced convenience food, if even that. Plus, you might get caught up in a conversation with someone interesting and end up missing lunch; you'll want to have a snack with you to eat discreetly during your next session.
11. Stay away from alcohol. At most, have only one or two drinks. If you find yourself hanging out in the venue's bar with other conference attendees, ask the bartender for a mocktail or a seltzer water with lime.
12. When you're back at your office, follow up with the people who you met at the conference. Email them to let them know you enjoyed meeting them and perhaps reference something you talked about. (Those notes on the back of their cards are helpful for this.)
Alison Green writes the popular Ask a Manager blog, where she dispenses advice on career, job search, and management issues. She's also the co-author of Managing to Change the World: The Nonprofit Manager's Guide to Getting Results, and former chief of staff of a successful nonprofit organization, where she oversaw day-to-day staff management, hiring, firing, and employee development.