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10 Conference Learning Tips – How to Get the Most Out of a Conference

by Jeff Cobb

Perhaps like you, I attend a handful of conferences each year. Given that the cost of registration, transportation, and hotel can often be north of $1,000, I decided it was well worth jotting down some thoughts on how to get the most of a conference from a learning perspective. I’m looking for a return on investment!

Here are the conference learning tips I’ve got so far. Please comment and share your thoughts about these as well as any additional tips you may have.

1. Attend with purpose

I generally register for conferences well ahead of time, and by the time the actual date rolls around, I often find myself sitting on a plane with little more than a vague sense of what I hope to get out of the days ahead. This time around I’ll be writing down 3 to 4 high level objectives I hope to achieve and paying attention to whether I am making progress towards them throughout the event.

2. Review education sessions ahead of time

Related to the point above, I’ve already spent some time looking at the various session that will be available at the conference and determining which ones it makes most sense for me to attend. I’ll be putting the times and places into my Google calendar before I go. I also plan to jot down some concrete objectives I hope to achieve in each session along with questions I may want to ask. Overkill? Maybe – but given the money and time involved, I want to get a good return.

3. Take notes

Regular readers here know my feelings about taking notes (a topic I also cover in 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner). Writing things down is a simple, straightforward approach to enhancing your learning, but we tend to slack off on it once we exit the world of formal schooling and grades. I’ll have my moleskin notebook handy. On my iPad I’ll also be using Evernote and one of my other favorite note taking tools – Twitter

4. Share your thoughts

Speaking of Twitter – I find it a great tool for capturing quick notes that I can also share with others who are tuned into the conference – whether they are actually there physically or not. (I use Hootsuite for Twitter because this makes it possible for me to easily access my own tweets and other tweets to the conference hashtag later.) I also aim to write at least one or two blog posts (probably over on the Tagoras blog) to help me think through and cement key things I learn.

5. Cultivate your network

Networking is one of the main reasons people cite for going to conferences, in my experience, but were often pretty haphazard in our networking efforts. I welcome the serendipitous hallway conversation, but I’ll also be spending some time figuring out which old friends might be there as well as new people I may want to meet. And, as the previous point suggests, I hope to make many new connections online and share my learning with current connections.

6. Take advantage of the exhibits

I think the exhibit hall – which will be a significant part of this conference – is a great, often overlooked learning resource. In any given field or profession, vendors are usually one of best sources for practical advice and insight into emerging trends. I’ll be spending a good bit of time wandering the floor, getting a general sense of new developments, and tracking down specific vendors to ask questions.

 7. Conduct audio and/or video interviews

One of the things I like to do on the exhibit floor is conduct interviews with vendors using a simple digital audio recorder, a Flip camera, or my iPhone. The process of coming up with interview questions and then getting the answers is a great learning experience that simultaneously provides me with some excellent content to share on blog posts and/ or YouTube. And, of course, I can easily do the same with speakers in sessions I attend or experts I find wandering the hallways.

8. Mind your body

It’s easy to slip into eating too much of the wrong things at a conference – a cookie here, a bag of chips there – and exercise often falls by the wayside. Knowing how important both food and physical activity are for learning, though, I’ll be doing my best to stay on top of both. I’ll also do my best to get a decent amount of sleep, both to make sure I am prepared to learn and to help me consolidate my learning.

9. Review, review, review

I’ll say it once again: repetition is the mother of learning. I plan to spend some time during the conference – each morning or evening – looking back over my notes, reflecting on what I’ve learned, and trying to connect it with what I already know. I’ll also make sure to spend some time in the weeks and months following the conference to revisit my notes. (These are all habits of the serious lifelong learner.)

10. Enjoy – and learn from – wherever you are

I was at a conference in Las Vegas a while back and I realized, when I was catching a cab back to the airport, that I had not actually left the MGM Grand in three days. That, I suppose, is part of the Vegas experience, but for this conference, I’m hoping I might actually be able to get out and do at least one interesting thing in the Dallas area. Anyone have suggestions?

Please comment and share your tips for getting the most out of conferences as learning events. And, if you happen to be heading to the ASAE conference in Dallas, let me know!

Jeff

P.S. – Regular readers will notice that a lot of what I cover above draws on 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner, a great resource for any conference attendee IMHO.

P.S.S. – I’ll be tweeting on @tagoras at the ASAE Annual Meeting (#asae12). I hope to connect with you on Twitter, in person, or both!

posted on August 9, 2012

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff Hurt August 9, 2012 at 1:00 pm

Jeff:

Great tips for conference attendees!

Here’s one I like to remind people to do:
Take the path less traveled. Separate from your traditional conference pack and separate from your friends for at least one breakout. That way you’ll meet new people and build new connections.

Jody Urquhart August 9, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I think the trade shows are a great chance to talk to vendors and suppliers and often overlooked. Having them all in one place is great. Usually events are so packed with content that people don’t get the chance to see the vendors.

Also networking is so important and the relationships you build and solidify are really a stepping stone to advancement.

Adrienne August 9, 2012 at 4:21 pm

Great post. Love #7 as I am trying to force myself to do the same as a way to

1) Get outside of myself and actually experience the conference

2) Find a fun way to meet new people that isn’t too intense

3) Learn more about the Association Industry outside of my little world

Thanks for sharing your thoughts and solidifying that I’m thinking along the right lines.

See you in Dallas!

Jeff Cobb August 9, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Jeff – That’s an important one. I do find that conferences can be kind of cliquish. You have to make the effort to break out.

Jody – Having been on the vendor side of the line in the past, I definitely know what a tug of war it an be! I have a deep appreciation for planners who manage to really incorporate the trade show elements into their conferences well.

Adrienne – I’ve always found #7 a lot of fun. I don’t think I did it at ASAE last year, so looking forward to getting back in the saddle.

Many thanks to each of you for sharing your thoughts! – Jeff

Edwin August 17, 2012 at 12:09 pm

Jeff there are some fantastic tips here. The one about taking notes is really important. I always think I can remember stuff, but having the notes for after a conference is always key.

Also I like your idea of conducting interviews. It’s a great ‘in’ to start talking to someone and it will give you some quality content that you could give to that person or put up on your own website later.

crw September 1, 2012 at 1:07 am

May I suggest that you also review Stephen Downes’ article “How to Get the Most Out of a Conference”, http://halfanhour.blogspot.ca/2011/11/how-to-get-most-out-of-conference.html

Jeff Cobb September 2, 2012 at 11:48 am

Certainly – you are free to suggest whatever you like. I will have a look. Stephen always has good things to say. – Jeff

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