How to Get the Most Out of a Conference
By Rebecca Knight, hbr.org
“The fact that technology has made it easier to interact with people across great distances and time zones actually makes face-to-face interaction even more valuable.”
Conferences are an overwhelming rush of presentations, conversations, and potential meet-ups, and it can be tough to know where to focus your time. How do you figure out which sessions to attend? Should you skip the keynote to meet an important contact? How many coffee dates are too many? And what should you do if you’re an introvert who hates small talk?
What the Experts Say
Professional conferences are an unavoidable fact of working life. And even if you’re an introvert who dreads the multi-day extravaganza of breakout talks and cocktail-infused networking sessions, you must resist your impulse to stay home, says Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School. “Skipping conferences is problematic because you’re missing out on the benefits of networking,” she says. “Today, probably even more than ever before, networks are a key form of social capital for achieving goals in both your professional and personal lives.” And meeting people at conferences “who likely have the same interests as you and are highly relevant to your work” is a good way to nurture and expand your network, says Dorie Clark, author of Stand Out Networking. “The fact that technology has made it easier to interact with people across great distances and time zones actually makes face-to-face interaction even more valuable.” Here’s how to get the most from the conferences you attend.
Change your mindset
Despite the known benefits of having an extensive and diverse network, many people “shy away from the opportunity to create new connections because networking makes them feel inauthentic and physically dirty,” says Gino. To reduce these feelings, she suggests changing your mindset and motives. You’re not just networking because you should; you’re doing it because it’s good for your career. She says that people who focus on their professional aspirations “network more frequently and experience decreased feelings of dirtiness” compared to those who are focused on merely meeting professional duties and responsibilities. As you’re getting ready for a conference, “try to stay motivated to network professionally for the growth, advancement, and accomplishment” that it will bring.
Weeks before the conference starts, “think about the people you would really like to get to know and then carve out time to accomplish that goal,” says Gino. Clark recommends creating a “priority wish list” of people you’d like to meet. Send those people an email introducing yourself; if possible, get an introduction from a mutual friend or colleague. If the person is presenting, tell her that “you’re going to make it a point to come to her session,” says Clark. “There’s a lot of fear when presenting that no one will come to your session so the fact that you’re making the effort will be appreciated.” If the person is not presenting, invite him for coffee. Or inquire “if there’s any session he’s excited about going to, then ask: Can we sit together?”
Be strategic with your time
Consider two things when choosing which sessions to attend. “A session should fulfill either a content goal, meaning the talk will be educational, or it should fulfill an interpersonal goal, meaning you want to meet or support the person who is presenting,” Clark says. The keynote speech is usually skip-able, but because someone famous often delivers it, “it’s fun to go,” she adds. “It’s likely to be entertaining and will give you bragging rights as in: ‘Hey, I heard Elon Musk speak.’” That said, “The keynote doesn’t have much networking value beyond being a conversation starter.”
Network on your terms
If plunging into a crowd makes you uneasy, you’ve got to “take initiative to create a situation where you feel comfortable,” says Clark. Perhaps one-on-one meetings are better for you or small group settings. If so, Clark suggests making a reservation at a local restaurant for about eight people before the conference. Then invite people from your wish list. “You want it to be a mix of people you know and people you would like to get to know better,” says Clark. “Tell them you’re bringing together a group of interesting people and you’d like them to join.” And be sure to tell them why the dinner is of interest. “If she’s a tech entrepreneur, tell her that you’re also inviting venture capitalists,” for example.
Listen more; talk less
When you’re attending a semi-professional, semi-social networking situation — such as a group dinner or conference cocktail reception — your goal is to “allow enough space for others to shine,” says Clark. Harness quiet power by asking thoughtful questions and listening carefully to how others respond. Having conversation starters at the ready can make small talk more palatable. For example, you might ask: “Which work project are you most excited about right now?” or “Which session are you most excited to attend?” If you’ve invited people together, it’s also important that you “exert sufficient control” of the situation. “Make sure people are interacting with and getting to know each other,” she says. Ask people to introduce themselves. Think of commonalities among group members and highlight those when you’re making introductions. “Try to bolster group cohesion rather than letting it be a fragmented experience,” says Clark.
Manage your existing connections
Conferences can be useful venues to solidify your current professional relationships. After all, says Gino, “good networking not only means creating new connections. It also means maintaining and strengthening existing ones.” But don’t spend all of your time with people you already know. That defeats the purpose of going to the conference in the first place. “If you know beforehand that certain colleagues are likely to glom on to you, draw clear boundaries — for both of your sakes,” says Clark. Having existing dinner or lunch plans can be handy. “Say to your colleague: ‘I need to meet new people tonight, but tomorrow I’m going to a session that I think we’ll both find interesting. Would you like to go together?’”
Make time for yourself
Conferences are exhausting, and can be especially so if you’re not an extrovert. “The fundamental truth about being an introvert is that you need to manage your energy differently from other people,” says Clark. “You need to know when you’re on the brink.” And so if you spend five days pushing yourself to attend every luncheon, cocktail party, and networking reception, “you’re going to be worn out and frayed, and you will not be at your best.” Put simply: Skip happy hour. In its place, do something restful or restorative. This is sound advice for both introverts and extroverts. “It’s easy for any professional to lose sight of self-care” because he or she is busy, adds Clark. Eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep are important to our health. Don’t neglect your own wellbeing. One of the most important ways to do this, says Gino, is to try not to be someone else when you’re in social situations. “Focus on being yourself,” she says. “This will help ensure that you don’t stress out too much or get too tired.”
Principles to Remember
Shift your mindset by focusing on how networking is good for your career
When choosing which sessions to attend, consider whether you’ll learn something or meet someone new
Take the initiative to create networking situations where you feel comfortable
Spend all of your time with coworkers you see every day — draw clear boundaries
Burn out — give yourself time to rest and rejuvenate during the conference
Try to be someone you’re not — putting on a false persona is stressful and tiring
Case Study #1: Organize small group gatherings and take time to recharge
Parisa Parsa, the Executive Director of the Public Conversations Project — a Boston-based group that helps workers and organizations create constructive dialog in their professional, civic, and personal lives — attends several conferences a year. “I don’t know if I will ever figure out how to make conferences not exhausting,” says Parisa, a natural introvert, “but I know what I need to do to make them productive.”
Earlier this year, Parisa, who is also a minister, attended the annual Unitarian Universalist Association conference in Portland, Oregon. Before she arrived, Parisa reached out to several people with whom she wanted to connect at the conference and invited them for coffee or a meal. “I do terribly when it comes to chatting with people on the spot, so I tried to set up one-on-one meetings so I could focus my attention and not have to fight for airtime,” she says. “Reaching out to people in advance made sure I was on their radar. They knew they were a priority to me.”
In the past, she has also arranged small group dinners around specific topics. Since most people know her but don’t necessarily know each other, Parisa gets the conversation flowing by asking everyone to introduce themselves and to provide an initial take on the topic at hand. “I like bringing people together for a smaller, structured gathering. Big groups can be overwhelming.”
Parisa also makes sure to not wear herself out by giving herself time to rest and recharge. “I used to feel that I had to be at each and every session, but now I’m more strategic about choosing sessions based on the content.”
During her most recent conference, she went for frequent walks around Portland and nipped into coffee shops to reflect on and write about the presentations she’d seen. “I tried to see little bit of the city,” says Parisa. “It’s really sad when the only part of the city you remember is the inside of convention centers.”
Case Study #2: Offer your assistance in order to be seen as a potential resource
Ron D’Vari, CEO of New York-based advisory firm NewOak Capital, is a self-described “conference junkie” who attends dozens of conferences each year. Conferences, he says, “expose me to new ideas and perspectives and give me a sense of the marketplace and where things are going.”
Earlier this year, after he learned about the upcoming Professional Risk Managers’ International Association (PRMIA) conference in New York, the first thing he did — and what he always does — was call the conference organizer. “I asked if I could help with content — I volunteered to speak or to moderate a panel, and I let them know I could help introduce them to other speakers,” says Ron. “Offering to be a part of the conference provides many more networking opportunities than merely attending the conference.”
Ron won a spot on a panel. Before the conference started, he examined the agenda and looked at the list of speakers and presenters. Whenever he came across a person he wanted to meet, he sent them an introductory email and a request to connect on LinkedIn. “That way, they know who you are,” he says.
Ron attended the conference with several colleagues but he made sure to go to different sessions and networking events. “You can’t stay in a clique with colleagues,” he says. “It’s time to get to know other people.” After all, “conferences are expensive. You’ve got to be able to get your two grand’s worth of connectivity.”
When networking, Ron also makes an effort to do more listening than talking. “My objective is be seen as a resource for people. I want to engage them in a way so that when they have a technical question down the road, they think to pick up the phone and call me.”
At the PRMIA conference Ron made many connections, including a Fed official with whom he is currently writing a paper.