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’ve decided it’s 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.
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. These days, I make it a point to write 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.
Related to the point above, I spend 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 put the times and places into my Google calendar before I go – or, if there is one, I may use the event app for this. I also 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.
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 always have my Moleskin notebook handy. I occasionally will take notes on my computer or iPad (in Evernote), but I prefer to take notes by hand first – research has proven this is more effective – and then transfer the notes to digital later as part of a review process.
Occasionally I will use Twitter 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’m not as high on Twitter as I once was, though – I feel like it can interfere with attention too much and may ultimately interfere with learning. A better practice, in my opinion, is to leverage notes taken in sessions to write at least one or two blog posts to help me reflect upon and cement key things I learn.
Networking is one of the main reasons people cite for going to conferences, in my experience, but we’re often pretty haphazard in our networking efforts. I welcome the serendipitous hallway conversation, but I’ll also try to spend time some time – e.g., through reviewing any available attendee lists, or checking out who is in the online community for the event (increasingly common) – 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.
I think the exhibit hall 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. Whenever there is an exhibit hall, I spend a good bit of time wandering the floor, getting a general sense of new developments, and tracking down specific vendors to ask questions and, as appropriate, get brief demos.
One of the things I like to do on the exhibit floor is conduct interviews with vendors using a simple digital audio recorder, a digital video 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.
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 do my best to stay on top of both. I also do my best to avoid the temptations of late night gatherings and get a decent amount of sleep, both to make sure I am prepared to learn and to help me consolidate my learning. Finally, I have been experimenting some with nootropics when attending learning events, and my current view is that they really can give your learning a boost.
I’ll say it once again: repetition is the mother of learning. I always spend some time during a 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 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.)
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 most events, I’ve begun making it a point to get out and see something interesting in the local area
Please comment and share your tips for getting the most out of conferences as learning events.
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.