If the event is a networking opportunity, determine whom you want to meet, how you intend to connect with them, where you might find them and what you would discuss
As we head into another busy summer season of conferences, summits, festivals and roundtables, many professionals will invest a considerable amount of time and money in specialist events that boost their knowledge, networks and enthusiasm.
But while conferences can be a brilliant way of broadening one’s horizons, establishing professional connections and plugging into exciting new innovations, they can also assault the senses and leave attendees feeling overwhelmed. In such an environment, it can be difficult to retain ideas and newly established contacts, rendering the exercise a complete waste of time.
This is what I call a ‘conference vortex’ – the point at which your brain, having been filled with great ideas, is emptied once you leave the event. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to counter this detrimental vortex and make the most of the conferences you attend.
Establish outcome goals
Start by asking yourself some important questions about why you are attending this specific event, what you hope to achieve, who you want to meet and which talks you believe are simply unmissable. You may want to rank potential outcomes using a gold, silver and bronze-based system.
A successful event strategy usually focuses on a single theme. Using this theme as a starting point, devise a timetable and a rough order of priorities regarding which talks, people and products you want to experience. By focusing on a clear goal, you can cut out the distractions and make the most of your time.
By focusing on a clear goal, you can cut out the distractions and make the most of your time at an event
If it’s a networking opportunity, determine whom you want to meet, how you intend to connect with them, where you might find them, what you would discuss and when the best time would be to make that all-important first impression.
Create a pyramid of thoughts
When planning your day, a pyramid of thoughts can be a logical and outcome-focused way of identifying priorities and tactics. Start with your overarching objective and be as specific as possible to make the next stage easier. Then summarise that objective in a single sentence – it might be about a new technology, a new skill or a very specific question.
Next, map out the surrounding issues and questions that feed into the main objective, matching these with specific talks, speakers and exhibitors. The better the plan you write down, the more likely you are to get the most from the conference.
Make a memory back-up
In psychology, the natural fading of memory is called ‘decay theory’. Put simply, every time we create a new memory, a ‘memory trace’ is created; unless we find ways to categorise and log these memories, it becomes harder to retrieve them. This is why notes are an important back-up.
Writing notes – and the way in which we take notes – is an underappreciated art form. It’s highly personal and depends on your learning style and personality type. Whether you’re a frantic scribbler or an obsessive for carefully colour-coded notes, make sure you keep writing. When you’ve taken great notes, you will find that you don’t even need to read them in order to remember the idea you were recording.
You can also take pictures of slides, draw diagrams, ask for the presentation after the session or share notes with colleagues. Find what works for you, but don’t rely solely on your memory. Another useful tip is to make notes on the back of business cards to jog your memory.
Conferences can be an assault on the senses. We are already exposed to thousands of advertising messages every day, and conferences are even busier, so it’s important to take frequent breaks. Fresh air, a quick sit down and a cup of tea will allow you to absorb and reflect on what you have just learnt. It’s similar to revising for an exam: the breaks you take between studying can be just as important as the revision itself.
Try not to allow yourself to get overwhelmed to the point where you leave the event without getting the information you came for. If you’re at a conference for a few days, building exercise into your morning or evening routine will help your brain to process and manage all that new information.
Share your experiences
Most companies are simply unable to send everyone to events – from a cost and resource perspective, even free conferences are expensive – so sharing your experiences with others can be invaluable. In fact, sharing what you’ve learned isn’t just beneficial to your colleagues: it’s a good way to learn yourself, too.
By reiterating your ideas through notes, preparing your thoughts in advance and delivering them either in writing or verbally, you’re replicating the same learning process as a group project or presentation at school. That’s why Amazon hosts Brown Bags – lunchtime talks in which an attendee will share what they learnt at a conference and explore how it can be related to others in the room.
Similarly, you may find creating a podcast or blog post helps you connect to an even wider audience, allowing you to share your learning and build greater thought leadership.