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.
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. 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.
2. Review education sessions ahead of time
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.
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 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.
4. Share your thoughts – but maybe not right away
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.
5. Cultivate your network
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.
6. Take advantage of the exhibits
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.
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 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.
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 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.
9. Review, review, review
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.)
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 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.
14 thoughts on “10 Conference Learning Tips – How to Get the Most Out of a Conference”
Yes, that is a great opportunity these days. Have also seen people using Instagram for this. – Jeff
The last conference I went to I wish I would have done some Facebook Live interviews from the floor.
Good tip, Jon – Plenty of research to suggest that a brief nap, particularly post learning, can help substantially with consolidating memory (in addition to keeping you sharp). Even a brief rest can have a significant impact, as highlighted here: https://www.missiontolearn.com/remember-what-you-hear/.
Good advice, Jeff. I recommend a short “cat nap” to stay sharp.
These are fantastic. I love attending conferences, and often find that I lose the enthusiasm and learning gained as soon as I get back to the grind.
One thing I’d add – divide and conquer. If you are attending with a colleague, attend separate sessions (unless there’s one you’re both dying to attend) and debrief afterwards. This helps you articulate what you’ve learned (by sharing) and increase your knowledge (by listening). Even if you’re attending alone, there are great chances for informal sharing as you network.
Great takeaways and love the “paper” notes. Will add reviewing them while at the conference. I, often, pull my notes out after the event when I provide an overview of the event with the team. One thing I added to combat the wrong items is to include a 30-45 minute workout either outside, in the hotel gym, or in my room prior to starting the day. Great way to get your body and mind ready for learning. Loved #9 – and added that to my learning basket for the future. Best.
Certainly – you are free to suggest whatever you like. I will have a look. Stephen always has good things to say. – Jeff
May I suggest that you also review Stephen Downes’ article “How to Get the Most Out of a Conference”, https://halfanhour.blogspot.ca/2011/11/how-to-get-most-out-of-conference.html
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.
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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
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!
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.
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.