Seven ways to get the most out of attending a conference

Coming to the Not-For-Profit People Conference in November? Or perhaps you’ve got another NFP conference coming up?

Conferences can be hyper-rich opportunities to learn new ideas, make new connections, gain perspective on your job, have important conversations with colleagues and develop as an NFP professional.

But doing all this at the same time isn’t a simple task – it can be easy for a conference to become a blur of presentations, faces and cocktails.

Why not develop a plan of attack well before you set foot in the conference centre?

With thanks to Harvard Business Review, here are seven ways for you to get the most out of your next conference:

1) Recognise the long-term benefits of networking

If you generally avoid face-to-face networking, you’re missing out on creating connections and expanding your network – and that could be costing you professional opportunities.

To get past any negative associations around networking, try viewing it less as a necessary evil and more as an opportunity to boost your career.

Is it really that simple? Yes, according to Harvard professor Francesca Gino. Her research in this area showed that people who focus on their professional aspirations instead of just seeing networking as just an obligation “network more frequently and experience decreased feelings of dirtiness” and inauthenticity.

So before your next conference, remind yourself of the growth and advancement opportunities available to you through networking – rather than dreading it.

2) Introduce yourself before the conference

In the lead-up to the conference, think about who’s attending that you’d really like to get to know – you should be able to get a list of attendees from the conference organisers. You could even create a wish list of the people you’d like to meet, and rank them by priority.

Shortly before the conference, reach out to those on your list via email or LinkedIn – if possible, ask a mutual friend or colleague to introduce you. Casually suggest catching up for a coffee during the conference, and start a conversation by asking them which sessions they’re most looking forward to. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you could even ask them if you could sit together.

And if someone on your wish list is speaking at the conference, add that you’re excited about seeing them speak, too.

3) Plan your time wisely

Attending every session at a conference will never be possible – so it’s a good idea to plan what to see and what to skip. To help you decide, consider:

  • What will I learn from the content of this session?
  • Will this session help me meet a speaker or attendees that will be valuable for personal or organisational growth?

4) Create networking opportunities

Walking into a room full of people you don’t know can be daunting.

More comfortable in smaller groups? Take the initiative to create situations better suited to your networking style. For example, you could invite a small group of people from your wish list to have lunch or dinner together – both those you know and those you’d like to get to know better.

Tell the people you invite why the meal will be of interest to them – beyond just being useful for your own networking purposes. Who will be there that might be of interest to them too?

5) Ask questions

Not sure how to approach people during networking opportunities – like lunchtime, morning/afternoon teas, and cocktail functions?

Try asking people thoughtful questions and listen carefully to their responses. You could prepare some conversation starters – questions like ‘Which session are you most looking forward to?’ or ‘What’s your organisation working on at the moment?’ are good starting points.

If you’ve brought some people together in a networking situation (like the meal suggestion above), it’s your job to ensure things go smoothly. Make sure people are interacting with each other and make an effort to connect those you think might have things in common.

6) Don’t just stick with people you already know

While a conference is a great place to seek out new connections, it can be tempting to hang out with people you already know. This can mean that you’ll miss opportunities to develop your networks.

If you know you usually attach yourself to certain a colleague who’s attending the conference, create a clear boundary for both your sakes. Try saying something like, “I think I’m going to focus on meeting new people today, but tomorrow I’m going to a session I think we’d both benefit from – shall we go together?”

7) Remember to make time for yourself

Conferences can be enriching and educational – and draining. So while you might want to attend every networking opportunity, you might in fact be better off strategically skipping a few for some personal time so you can be at your best and freshest the rest of the time. This is especially important for introverts, who are often quicker to tire from social interactions.

Instead, take that time to focus on self-care – eat well, exercise and get enough sleep before and after the conference to help you recharge.

If you want to reap the greatest benefits from your next conference, you need to make the effort to research, map out your plan of attack and consciously make the most of your time. And don’t forget to have fun too!

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