We've all been there -- the professional conference that feels like a waste of your time. You came, you saw, you yawned, and you conquered absolutely nothing.
But going back to the office without actionable new insights and valuable new connections is your fault -- not the fault of those good-hearted professionals who stood up and gave presentations, or the unsung heroes who planned every last detail of the conference (down to the scavenger hunt in the exhibit hall and the 6:00 a.m. yoga class for conference goers).
Today was my first day back in the office after four days at the American Marketing Association's annual Symposium for the Marketing of Higher Education, and I came away feeling that:
1. It was well worth my time.
2. If I had attended that very same conference (same attendees, same presenters, same topics) 10 years ago, I would have thought it was lousy.
How is that?
"It's not you. It's me."
For a conference to be great, you must be a great attendee. You must participate, and not just show up to absorb knowledge like an empty vessel. Here are five clues that the "awful conference" you attended was your own fault.
Clue #1: You ate alone.
For each breakfast, you either ordered room service or inhaled a muffin on the escalator between the exhibit floor and your first educational session.
At lunch, you skipped out to check email or find a McDonald's because you "hate" conference food. (Seriously? Suck it up. I'm a vegetarian with Celiac disease. I typically eat TicTacs for lunch, but I still show up to the conference lunches because those beautiful round tables are the perfect environment to meet 9 other people who can teach me something or became a valuable collaborator in the future).
At dinner time, you met up with old friends who lived in New Orleans (or wherever you're conferencing), you had room service again, or you ate alone at the hotel's lobby bar.
(But it's definitely that awful conference's fault you didn't meet anyone interesting all week.)
Tip: Read Keith Ferrazzi's Never Eat Alone, and commit to making some new friends.
Clue #2: You skipped the opening-night reception and/or decided to drive/fly home early rather than come to the final morning keynote.
The best opportunities for lengthy conversations (and free wine) often happen the night before the conference kicks off in earnest. It's a travesty to miss the social gatherings that precede the educational sessions.
And "getting a jump on traffic" when you should be showing up to hear the closing keynote (which is nearly always delivered by the conference's biggest rock star, as it was this week at the AMA when University of Cincinnati's President Santa J. Ono mesmerized more than a thousand marketers with his "Donuts & Taylor Swift" presentation), is a huge mistake.
Clue #3: When, within the first five minutes of a session, you realized it wasn't resonating for you, you decided to zone out to Facebook or email instead of getting off your tail and going elsewhere.
Professional conferences are not college classes. There will not be a quiz tomorrow, and no one is taking attendance. If you think a speaker sucks or the material is not relevant to you, get up and go find another session that's better. Complaining later that the quality of the talks was sub-par when you could have chosen one of six other concurrent sessions is immature and less than strategic.
Clue #4: You showed up without a strategy and a plan.
"I want to learn something interesting" is not an actionable goal. Conference attendees who are active participants (and not passive learners) always come away with great results. Before going to a conference, you should set clear goals. Maybe you want to select 3-6 people on the attendee list with whom you must have a meaningful conversation before the week is over. Or maybe you want to meet at least one company on the exhibit floor who would be the perfect vendor for one of your top-5 projects next year. Or maybe you want to get to know the conference organizers so they'll recognize your name when they see you submit an abstract for a paper you want to deliver next year.
At the AMA, I met every one of my goals. Here's how.
- Months before the conference, I reached out to the 4 people who I was really hoping might be attending, to ask if they'd be there and if we could schedule some time to meet. In every case, they were either going to be there (and I was able to schedule some time with them) or they weren't coming but my "Hey, will you be in Chicago this November?" email spurred a conversation that spurred business.
- I printed off the conference attendee list when it was sent to us (all 1,400 names). Then I skimmed it and highlighted the names of all the people I wanted to try to meet, or at least follow up with afterward (e.g., "I see you were at AMA this week. I'm so sorry to have missed you. Any chance we could chat once you get settled back in at the office? The session on XYZ got me thinking about your organization and your need for blah-blah-blah. I have some ideas how to help.").
- I handed out business cards shamelessly and asked, "So, what do you do for LMNOP University?" This is a simple and effective way to make valuable connections.
- Each night, I took the business cards I'd collected and scribbled notes on the back of them (like "sat next to her during morning keynote -- she's the one who shut down all the university publications that used inauthentic "kid speak" to try to appeal to high school students"). Then I connected to each person on LinkedIn.
- I dressed comfortably (flat shoes, jeans or khakis, warm sweaters and layers), I hydrated with tons of water and I kept my body happy enough to stay focused and alert.
- I had meetings with current business partners, future business partners, former business partners, a former employee, and strangers. I laughed and I learned and I enjoyed every minute of it.
Clue #5: You didn't bother to learn the conference hashtag.
I don't advocate "live tweeting" to the degree that you are so busy playing with your phone that you aren't really processing what you are hearing, but I do know that when I'm periodically challenging myself to distill the conference contents down into 140-character comments, I'm learning. And I'm sharing. If you don't garner at least 10 new Twitter followers during a professional conference, you're doing something wrong. Share the love; share the insights; make new connections.
"But Kate ..." you might say ... "Sometimes a conference really IS awful. The speakers are troglodytes. The material was elementary and out of date. The chicken was like rubber." But I say, it's still your fault.
In the end, attending a great conference is less about showing up to an event that is perfectly planned by others than it is about showing up with a perfect plan to make the most of the event. As long as the right people are in the building (e.g., industry leaders, your peers, possible collaborators or clients or vendors or future employers), it doesn't have to be a travesty if the educational sessions are weak.
I wish you many AMAZING conferences in 2016!
P.S. A big thanks to my new friend Lisa from Emory who had the nerve to hunt down my cell phone number and text me during the conference so we could enjoy a late-night lobby-bar kick-off to what is surely going to be a valuable personal and professional relationship. Next time we're in the same zip code, the mojitos are on me!