Success in your career depends upon how well you manage your professional development. A prime source of this development comes from being a member of a professional association that relates to your career. As a member, you can attend conferences where you advance your skills and meet people who can help you.
Some people, however, treat conferences as a paid vacation. They party, they skip sessions, and they return home with little more than a stack of receipts. That costs them (or their business) money and contributes nothing to professional growth.
Here’s how to get the most out of your next conference.
1) Start With a Plan
First, make a list of your goals for attending the conference. For example, this could include the information that you want to gain, the relationships that you want to deepen, the people you want to meet, and the things that you want to buy. Also, make a list of questions that you want to have answered while you’re at the conference. This list will help you focus on your personal agenda during the conference and will maximize your chances of returning with something of value.
Then, scan through the program to select those sessions that will help you the most. These could be on topics that teach skills leading to a promotion, help open new opportunities at work, or answer important questions about your career. If many valuable sessions are scheduled at the same time, then select your first and second choices. You may find that one of the sessions has been canceled or filled (sold out).
Highlight your top priority sessions so you can sign up or arrive early. These sessions generally have such great value that they justify attending the conference, and you want to make sure that you’re there when they start.
If your boss must approve attending a conference, use your plan to justify your request. Be sure to include explanations of how the information, relationships, and participation at the conference will enhance your value to your company. Wise leaders always support someone who relates a request to the benefits that come from it.
2) Work the Plan
While at the conference keep your list of goals and questions in mind. Begin each day by checking your list and identifying those goals that you can achieve during that day. For example, some sessions may provide information that answers some of your questions.
At the end of the day review your list and check off those goals that you accomplished. If you discover new opportunities, then add them to your list of goals. And if you find yourself stuck on reaching a goal, seek out a senior member whom you can ask for advice on how to achieve it.
3) Meet People
Often the greatest benefit of attending a conference will be the relationships that you start while there. These relationships can become sources of information, friendship, and job opportunities.
Thus, make it a point to meet new people. Instead of spending all of your time with friends or colleagues, go off on your own. Join other people for meals. Sit next to them during the sessions. Start conversations while walking between sessions. And be sure to ask for a business card. Then you can add that person’s contact information into your contact database.
I encourage you to introduce yourself to the speakers. They were invited to speak at the conference because of their expertise in your profession. Thus, they can become valuable resources for information, assistance, and referrals. The best time to meet speakers is right after they finish their presentation. Introduce yourself, offer a brief compliment on the presentation, and ask for a business card. Of course, if you meet them again at the conference, use this as an opportunity to talk further.
4) Apply What You Gained
When you return home, set aside an hour or so to review the notes that you took while at the conference. You may want to schedule this on your calendar before you leave for the conference.
Review your notes, identifying the main ideas. Then convert each of these ideas into an action on your list of things to do. Once you finish the list add a completion date and assign a priority. Recognize that this step converts everything that you learned, collected, and gained during the conference into tangible benefits for yourself and your company.
If you are an employee, I recommend writing a report for your management. Document the key ideas that you gained and describe how they can be applied to your work. If you’re an independent, you may still want to write such a report for yourself because this formalizes what you gained from the conference.
5) Be Grateful
When you return home, write thank you notes to the people who helped you at the conference. This simple courtesy sets you apart as an exceptional person. I especially recommend writing notes to:
1) The leaders in the association. They worked hard to organize the event.
2) Members of the staff who helped you. These people can help you get the most out of your membership.
3) The speakers. This could start relationships with experts and celebrities in your profession.
4) New friends. This makes you memorable when you meet again at the next conference.
Use a conference to immerse yourself in the society and the technology of your profession. And then apply what you gained to advance your career.