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Getting more out of a conference

Posted by Ilise Benun on

I spent the weekend in (very) warm and (very) sunny Palm Springs attending a small conference geared towards professional speakers.

It’s a strange, meta-sort of thing—speakers giving speeches about giving speeches—but I think that the main lessons of the weekend are universal. And since I’m guessing most entrepreneurs either attend some type of conferences already or have wondered whether attending one might be valuable, I thought I’d share some of what I got out of this particular one.

First, preparation helps enormously. You can hit the road without a map, but it’s an entirely different experience. I had a general idea of what I wanted to come away with from this conference, and so the experience was far less overwhelming than at my first conference ever, SXSW earlier this year.

Susie Vanderlip, a speaker in the youth market, shared a great technique in one of the panel discussions: she comes to every conference or meetup with three to five questions she’d like help with. She said it keeps her on track and ensures that even if things get overwhelming, she’ll come away with some useful information. (Bonus extra for introverts: it gives you some good stuff to fall back on if you get tongue-tied.)

Second, while it’s great to have a game plan, it’s important to be flexible. At larger conferences, especially, it’s good to do your research ahead of time, and get a rough idea of which panels or speakers you might want to attend so you’re not overwhelmed in the moment. But it’s also good to leave a little wiggle room. You might find yourself drawn to something that day that didn’t appeal before.

Or you might find you’d get more out of an hour’s break or nap than another session. That happened a couple of times this weekend, and while I’m sorry I missed out on seeing a few people, I honestly don’t know how much I would have gotten out of those particular experiences since I was so fried I could barely see straight. Introverts

Third, you don’t have to buy exactly what they’re selling. And no, I’m not talking about all the doodads they pimp at the back of the room. Nominally, this conference was about adding to my marketing skill set, and I did pick up a few good ideas over the weekend. But I had decided beforehand to go to this conference for two reasons: to watch speakers speak, and see what worked and what didn’t, and to continue honing my interpersonal skills.

I think this is a really important thing for business types who typically go it alone to remember: you can use a conference to do what you want. Practice saying "hi" to people. Practice asking questions, or asking for help. Practice being around people. I know I was missing a lot by not physically getting out there and interacting, mostly because I was so introverted the mere thought of it made me tired.

I’m still no extrovert, but the more I exercise that muscle, the more I feel it’s ready when I do need to use it. Plus I’ve met some really cool people—some of them in the pool when we’re not "doing" anything.

Finally, juice trumps everything.
This is really a subset of the above point, but I think it bears mentioning on its own.

Maybe it has something to do with mental critical mass, or maybe it’s just because we’re social animals, but nothing revs me up like some quality time around passionate people. Even if you’re not passionate about the exact same thing, you can plug into that energy and use it to get yourself out of a rut, propel you in a new direction, or even just move forward for a bit. Think of the charge you get from a great conversation with friends, or sitting in the stands of an exciting sports event, or hanging out at a great party. You can get excited about stuff on your own, but not in the same way.

I guess it’s kind of like blogging vs. writing for yourself—while it’s great to be alone with your thoughts, it’s also great to take part in conversation…

UPDATE: Conference link here. More in the comments section…

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