The Grant Professional Association national conference is right around the corner and, if you’re like me, you’re looking forward to catching up with friends, learning new techniques and tools of the trade, and perhaps squeezing in a little sightseeing.
But in all the excitement, have you taken a moment to think about how the conference fits into your professional development and career goals? You’re likely to be gone 3-4 days so wouldn’t it be nice to come home with more than just a stack of business cards and overflowing session handouts?
The key is setting priorities in advance so you leave the conference with the connections and knowledge that will make a difference in your career and opportunities over the next 6-9 months. So with that goal in mind, I created a 2-week plan to help you get ready for your next conference.
2 WEEKS BEFORE THE CONFERENCE
#1 Decide on your conference goals.
Conferences are wonderful times to make connections and learn new ideas, but don’t just stop there. Spend a few moments mulling over your career goals and how the conference can help achieve them. Ask yourself:
- Where do you want to be career-wise in the next 1-2 years?
- Are there any subjects being taught that will help move your career forward?
- Are there any speakers or attendees it would be helpful to meet?
- What’s your specific goal when you meet the people you identified above? Do you want to partner on a project? Do you need expert advice on a particular issue? Are you job seeking and could this new connection put in a good word?
Taking a moment to answer these questions will help define your goals for the conference which in turn influences the sessions you attend and the people you connect with.
#2 Update your social media profile with a current picture.
Maybe not the advice you’d expect, but still important. You want people to be able to recognize you at conferences and events so don’t make things harder for them. Use a current photo for your social media profiles. It doesn’t have to be a professional picture. Any smartphone will take a picture good enough to use as your social media handle. So hand your phone to a friend or one of your kids, go out in the backyard, and snap a picture.
#3 Download the conference app.
Not all conferences have an app, but it’s becoming more common. And if there’s a feature in the app that lets you connect with other conference attendees, use it! Post a simple “Hi my name is & I’m excited to meet everyone” so you can start making connections even before the conference gets started. This is especially helpful if it’s your first time attending the conference because you’ll have a few people you can seek out when you first arrive (which makes the initial networking a little less intimidating).
Also, most conference apps include the conference agenda so you can see what sessions are on offer, who the keynote speakers are, and what socials are available.
#4 Look over the agenda and chose all the sessions and networking events you’re interested in attending.
Don’t worry about figuring out an exact schedule yet. You’ll fine tune it later. Just circle everything that sounds interesting. Also, add sessions to your “maybe” list if they’re being taught by a speaker you admire or have heard good things about.
#5 Reach out to friends & colleagues to see if they are going to the conference.
Conferences are a great place to catch up with friends and colleagues you don’t get to see often. Start penciling in dates/times when you can meet. Breakfast, lunches, and dinners are obvious, but also see if they’re planning on attending any of the sessions you’re interested in. Those 15 minutes between sessions are the perfect opportunity for a quick chit-chat.
#6 Connect with your favorite speakers via social media.
Stay with me here. This doesn’t have to be difficult, I promise. All you have to do is send the speaker a tweet or post on their Facebook page something like “Hi. I saw you’re speaking at ______. I’m going too. Can’t wait to meet you in person.”
Then this is the important part. Politely begin “stalking” them. Retweet, share their blog posts and even join their communities. The goal here is for you to begin to stand out. Not many people go this extra step which is why it’s so valuable. By helping to share their message, the speaker will take notice and remember your name. And that makes it much easier to strike up a conversation when you introduce yourself.
And if you happen not to be on Twitter or Facebook, a good old fashioned email works too.
1 WEEK BEFORE THE CONFERENCE
#1 Finalize your conference schedule.
You’ve set up a few dinners, decided which networking events you’re attending, and have narrowed down your sessions choices. Now it’s time to put everything together and finalize your schedule.
It’s a good idea to have a fairly fleshed out schedule at least a few days before the event starts. That way when last-minute invitations to drinks or coffee popup (which they always do), you’ll know whether you’re available.
#2 Create and practice your “elevator speech.”
I know, not the most enjoyable thing imaginable, but it’s a certainty that you’re going to be asked “What do you do?” at least 20 times during the conference so instead of trying to craft a coherent answer on the spot, take a few moments and think through your reply now. Knowing what you’re going to say will make you far more confident during those first few introductions.
AT THE CONFERENCE
#1 Use a business card scanner app to digitize business cards.
How many times have you returned from a conference with a handful of business cards only to hide them in a desk drawer and never see them again? All of us have done it. In fact, it’s such a normal part of the post-conference routine that savvy entrepreneurs decided to cash in on the problem and developed smartphone apps that let you snap photos of business cards and upload them to contact lists. Many apps even let you include notes along with the card entries so you can jot down keywords from your conversation to help jog your memory later. There are lots of good options out there so take a look at your app store to see which one would serve you best. One well-reviewed app that has been featured in TechCrunch, Lifehacker, and the New York Times is Camcard.
#2 Take pictures.
Take pictures with speakers, your new contacts, and even take a few snapshots of those melt-in-your-mouth chocolate chip cookies they serve during breaks. Post them to your social media platform of choice, making sure to tag new connections and use the conference hashtag. Besides being a lot of fun, by taking pictures throughout the conference you’re building a story history you can refer to later.
#3 Try your hand at tweeting live from your sessions.
This one’s probably not for newbies to social media, but for anyone who is familiar with social media and is ready for the next step, make it a goal to tweet out at least one quote or insight from each session you attend. Remember to tag the speaker (if he or she is on social media) and include the conference hashtag. This gives your followers who weren’t able to attend the conference insights about the topics you’re learning and it’s fun for the family to see what you’re up to. Another bonus to tweeting conference highlights is that you can use your tweets to help construct your “Top 10 List”, which we’ll cover next.
2 DAYS AFTER THE CONFERENCE
#1 Create a “Top 10 List” of what you learned at the event.
Your “Top 10 List” is your top 10 favorite (or most important) takeaways, “ah ha” moments, and action steps from everything you learned at the conference. Yes, it’s a little bit of work, but it’s worth taking the time to create for two big reasons.
First, many times we attend conferences, listen to the talks, and maybe even jot down ideas to take back with us, but how many times do we actually review those notes once we get home? Let alone implement them? By carving out just a few moments when you get back to your office to develop your “Top 10 List”, you force yourself to take stock of what you learned and identify what action steps you’d like to take next. Please believe me when I say this single step of developing your “Top 10 List” is what will transform the next event you attend from “just another conference” into a tool to help you reach those professional development and career goals you identified in the very beginning. It’s worked for me and so I know it will work for you.
Second, once you have your “Top 10 List” ready, ask your boss for 15 minutes and run through the list with her. This lets her know exactly what you learned at the conference and helps her understand how you’re planning to implement your ideas for the future. I’ve done this numerous times and without fail, my boss has loved it.
And it makes sense. Employers want to know their money is being well spent and that they’re getting value from sending you to professional development events. A “Top 10 List” is just an easy way to show them. And it might even lay the seed for the idea of you returning to the conference next year!
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