12 ways to get the most out of attending a conference

Attending work-related conferences can be useful or useless, depending on how you approach them. Approach them right and you can pick up new skills, learn about trends in your field, and make valuable networking contacts. Approach them wrong and they can end up merely being long, boring days away from home.

Here are 12 tips for getting the most of conferences.

1. Read through the agenda ahead of time and figure out what sessions you want to attend. Realize that you probably won’t be able to attend a session in every time slot throughout the day, so prioritize the ones you most want to attend. If you’re attending with a coworker, consider dividing them up so that between the two of you, you’re covering more sessions. Similarly…

2. Read the exhibitors list ahead of time and make a list of people and companies you want to speak with. Otherwise, in a large exhibition hall, you may get overwhelmed and never make it to the people who you most wanted to talk to.

3. Ask questions in the sessions you attend. Don’t be shy about questioning the speakers about points you’re especially interested in or would like clarified. In fact, you’re actually doing the speakers a favor by asking questions; most speakers dread having disengaged audiences, and there’s nothing worse for a speaker than asking for questions and finding a silent room.

4. Practice introducing yourself in one sentence. You’re going to be doing this over and over when you meet new people, and you want it to be polished.

5. Bring business cards. You might not use cards much in the rest of your work life, but you’ll go through dozens at a conference when you’re meeting new people. And you’ll collect dozens too, so make sure to make a few notes on the back of each so that you remember who each person is once you’re back at your office.

6. Be approachable. Don’t spend all your time outside of conference sessions using your phone or immersed in reading material. By looking around you and looking open and engaged, you’ll make it more likely that someone else looking for someone to talk to will approach you.

7. Don’t be afraid to approach people yourself. Conferences are filled with people hoping to meet someone to talk to. You don’t even need an excuse; you can simply walk up and introduce yourself and ask about the other person. You can also ask whether they’ve been to any good sessions or have found any decent coffee nearby.

8. Wear comfortable shoes. You’re going to be doing a lot of standing around talking to people, and you might even end up standing in some sessions if they’re packed. And if the conference is in a large hotel or other large venue, you’ll be doing a lot of walking to get from your room to the conference halls, meals, and so forth.

9. Don’t make non-work plans for the evenings. You might think that traveling to a conference will be a great opportunity to catch up with your friend who lives in that city, but lots of networking will happen in the evening, often spontaneously. You want to be available for that last-minute dinner or outing.

10. Bring snacks in your purse or briefcase. Conferences often offer only overpriced convenience food, if even that. Plus, you might get caught up in a conversation with someone interesting and end up missing lunch; you’ll want to have snack with you to discreetly eat during your next session.

11. Stay away from alcohol. At most, have only one or two drinks. If you find yourself hanging out in the venue’s bar with other conference attendees, ask the bartender for a mocktail or a seltzer water with lime.

12. When you’re back at your office, follow up with the people who you met at the conference. Email them to let them know you enjoyed meeting them and perhaps reference something you talked about. (Those notes on the back of their cards are helpful for this!)

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 40 comments… read them below }

  1. Katrina*

    Random note to females in financial services, based on my experiences only: don’t go to the hotel bar after 9pm to talk further with conference people. This is generally when the hooking-up-at-conferences stuff starts getting kicked off, and you don’t want to be seen as a viable (bangable?) option.

    1. Parfait*

      I wouldn’t think a respectable male would want to be seen as a viable option either. Why limit this advice to women?

      1. Katrina*

        Probably because I don’t have the perspective of a young man, and (as noted) it was strictly based on my experience. However, young gentlemen, heed the warning – it’s no place to kick it.

  2. Sascha*

    Comfortable shoes and comfortable clothes!! I went to a conference last year at the Venetian in Las Vegas and it felt like 1 5-20 minute walk just to get to my hotel room. I had to plan out my day in advance…no quick trips to grab a missing charger or snack.

    I found that investing in a nice looking backpack or messenger bag is a good idea, for aforementioned chargers, snacks, water bottles, jackets, etc. Also I really hate carrying around bunches of bags so I like to have my backpack with me for vendor exhibits.

    1. Anonymous*

      BTDT and totally agree! Those hotels and grounds are huge, and it’s a long walk from ballrooms to your room. And don’t be fooled by the maps if you end up staying just across the street from the hotel where the conference actually is being held – it is farther than it looks!

  3. Another Cat*

    I first read the title as “12 ways to get out of attending a conference”. What a let-down on re-read. ;o)

  4. AdAgencyChick*

    This is great. All of it. (Although I will admit that I frequently break rule #9 for my own sanity.)

    1. Sascha*

      Yeah, I break rule 11 sometimes. Although I try to reserve my drinking when I’m alone in my hotel room. Some conferences make me want to drink more than others lol.

  5. Brett*

    Here are some of my tips, developed from years of attending the absolutely enormous ESRI User Conference (14,000+ with 30+ concurrent sessions).

    Pick out alternative sessions to attend if your first one does not work out, and your route to get there quickly. Sometimes the room is full. Sometimes presenters don’t show. Sometimes the session just plain sucks and is nothing like the description.

    Which leads to my second tip. Don’t be afraid to leave a bad session. If it is clear that a session is not what you thought it would be, leave. Go to one of your second choice sessions and do not spend 30-60 minutes sitting in an unproductive session.

    Consider occasionally splitting your sessions. If the first speaker of one session is interesting, and the third speaker of another, get up and go to the other session. Make sure you sit at the back of the room so you can leave unobtrusively between sessions. Do not do this all the time, because you want to end the session in a room with people you want to talk with.

    Set aside a “vendor block”. The Esri UC has somewhere around 500 vendors, which means lots to discover as well as specific vendors I want to see. I normally pick a 2+ hour block out of the schedule where I will do nothing but walk the vendor hall. I make sure I have some downtime after that block too. This is easier than trying to sneak in vendor visits between sessions.

    Tweet. If you don’t use twitter, start learning, because a conference is one of the most useful professional situations for twitter. There almost always is a conference back channel on twitter where you can found out about neat things on and off the agenda. Sometimes there is a Tweet Up before the conference, a gathering where people can put faces to handles for conference twitter users. These are pretty fun and involve more drinking than tweeting.

    How to use Twitter? When you are in an awesome session, tweet about it. People stuck in bad sessions will see your tweet and can move to your room to see a great speaker they would have otherwise missed. Don’t tweet about how bad a session is; but if the speaker doesn’t show or something similarly disastrous happens, alert others to that so they do not waste their time walking down there.

    More on twitter. Use twitter socially. You can find out about networking opportunities and where people are going for dinner or early evening drinks. This is especially a great tool for the introverted, as you can gather this information and focus your social time to be as effect as possible before you start to tire out.

    And yet more on twitter. If there is a plenary, tech keynote, or other major talk, live tweet it. Your audience is all the people who could not make it to the conference, and not only will they appreciate knowing the industry significant announcements going on, but you will find yourself getting industry recognition for your efforts.

    Something not about twitter. Look for semi-professional social gatherings like user group meetings, meetups, sub-discipline meetings, etc (twitter can help find these though, so this is partially about twitter). These are great for networking with like minded people without the pressure to drink. You also can often catch some very useful presentations outside the main conference agenda.

    Talk to the celebrities of your profession. Those hot shot people who do keynotes, lightning talks, etc? They are normal people too. And most of them are very excited about what they do and want to share with others, so they can give you some great conference advice.

    Want an easy excuse to talk to them? Do a photo safari. Set a goal to collect as many pictures as you can of yourself with those industry celebrities. Feel free to even tell them that you are doing a photo safari, it makes a good ice-breaker. It will also help you plan out how to meet these people. (Okay, the Chocolate Teapot Master is doing a session on spout crafting at 2 pm, so if I go to that session I can probably get a picture with them afterwards.)

    1. CollegeAdmin*

      Thanks for this! My boss has started asking me to take over her professional twitter account in addition to the one I handle for a specific college program, so this will a) help me run it and b) help me explain to her that she should really be doing some herself to get the most out of it – I don’t attend these conferences, she does!

      1. Brett*

        I would also recommend using a social media management tool like hootsuite or buffer. This can make is easy for multiple people to post to an account without having to share passwords. (As well as making it easy for you to manage multiple twitter accounts from one location.)

        1. Gene*

          If you use a management tool, never ever attach your personal Twitter account to it. If I ran a work-related social media account, it wouldn’t even be on the same phone as my personal one.

  6. Matteus*

    I would add two tips, based on fairly recent controversial events at conferences in my industry.
    Don’t, even if attending a session with your best bud, be unprofessional. This is a professional event, act like it. No inappropriate jokes, no raucus laughter, no horseplaying. Even if you office culture is all pizza parties and bouncy balls, assume the accepted common denominator of professional behavior.

    Second, don’t use a professional event as your opportunity for social justice warrioring or politicking or proselytizing.

    If you are tweeting about a conference session, stick to the professional context. Address social justice /politicial / religious/ what have you concerns in a different venue.

  7. ChristineSW*

    #1 – I’ve found that for a lot of conferences, you have to register for sessions ahead of time, or at least strongly encouraged. Some conferences do allow on-site registration provided that there is space available at the sessions you want.

  8. Jen*

    My tip -follow the conference hashtag on twitter. You can seriously find out way more inside scoop on Twitter. You can more easily “meet people” who are into the same aspects of your business as you are and you can easily keep in contact with them throughout the year.

    Also, as lame as this is, there are many giveaways at conferences that are announced on twitter. I used to work at event booths and we’d give away ipads or food at certain times of the day and we’d announce it on twitter using the conference hashtag.

    There are also usually unofficial and official tweetups in restaurants near the conference so it’s a good way to force yourself out of roomservice and into meeting more people

  9. Scott M*

    After attending just a few conferences in my career, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m just not the best person to send to a conference. As a low-level IT employee, I don’t have the high-level information to discuss our department strategy with the vendor’s representatives. I’m more interested in the nuts-and-bolts of the software, rather than the big picture.

    The sessions are mostly just sales pitches with vague details. If there are details, I can get the same information out of the handouts.

    As for meeting people… meh. I can email the vendor contacts for information if I need it. The other attendees have such different business requirements for their companies that it’s not very useful to talk to them (I can’t provide them anything useful and vice-versa)

    But send me to a week long training session, and I’m all over it!

    Regrettably, while we seem to have the budget for conferences, no one can come up with the money for training…

    1. Brett*

      That’s on the conference organizers. I’ve been on a few committees now, and if an abstract looks at all like a sales pitch, we reject it. Or if we get complaints that a presentation was a sales pitch, we bar them from submitting abstracts in the future.

      Conferences should function like week-long training sessions if done correctly. Most government agencies actually will not allow people to attend if they cannot demonstrate that the conference will replace an equal or greater amount of training at the same cost.

      You sound like the type who would benefit from unconferences or ignite events more than formal conferences. Keep an eye out for events with that format (very common format in tech btw), or for unconference events associated with a more formal conference. As an added bonus, unconferences are often free or cheap.

      1. Ann O'Nemity*

        Eh, some conferences really are intended as product expos. Conferences can serve a variety of purposes, and I bristle a bit at the assertion that all of them should function as training sessions.

  10. MaryMary*

    Bring a sweater or jacket to every session. I don’t know why, but so many of those big conference rooms are FREEZING.

  11. The Wall Of Creativity*

    If the conference is over multiple days, get to bed early each evening. Even if you’re not beering it, a late night in the bar will trash you for the whole of the following day.

  12. The Wall Of Creativity*

    And don’t forget the freebies. Only pack your bag half fill with clothes to make room for them. And be choosy about what you take. If there’ something really good, take as many as they’ll let you get away with.

  13. Gene*

    If you regularly go to confernces, you’ll develop a cadre of people you tend to hang out with. I’ve made life-long friends that way. BUT, you also need to make time to socialize outside your pack. If there’s a luncheon, let them know you are going to sit with others to spread your wonderfulness.

    Go to a session that has a subject you know little or nothing about; you just might learn something and find a new passion.

    Especially in Vegas, things are much farther apart than they seem; plan on not getting back to your room.

  14. Gjest*

    Skip some sessions. For a multi-day conference, I can’t stay focused if my schedule is full of talks the whole time. Pick a session or 2 that are the least interesting, and spend some time doing something other than listening to talks. My first couple of conferences I tried to go to everything, then by the end of the conference, my brain was full and I didn’t get anything out of those talks.

    1. HR lady*

      Good advice, Gjest! It’s exciting at first, but after a while it can be exhausting to haul yourself from room to room over and over again, getting lost, not having time to check your email, not having time to digest the information you heard, etc. Plan in a break or two.

  15. PEBCAK*

    Maybe this is for a whole separate post…but try to get on the other side of the podium as a speaker! How you do this obviously varies by conference, but usually there is some kind of call for submissions, and you can put together a talk or an idea for one.

    How to get a talk accepted:
    –Pick a topic that you’d find interesting to attend. I find that, at software conferences, many of the talks are given by vendors or consultants. People can be really attracted to something as simple as an implementation story from someone “in-house.”
    –If it’s your first time, look for smaller regional conferences that are less likely to draw the attention of all the superstars in your field.
    –Prepare the abstract with the big takeaways in mind.

    –Makes *you* the person that other people want to connect with
    –Very often includes free admission to the conference
    –Looks great on your resume!

    1. Brett*

      The free admission depends on the industry. In my particular slice of IT that is heavily public sector, not even conference chairs get free admission. That is considered an improper benefit anyway.

      Another advantage is that often times people can teach you new solutions based on what you presented. “You ran into this problem? Have you tried this….”

      1. PEBCAK*

        Ah, good point on the admission. Now that I think about it, academic stuff is the same way (you have to pay no matter what).

        In any case, I’d argue that there are a lot of benefits, and I’d love to see a full post on other ideas people have on how to *be* a conference speaker.

        1. Brett*

          Having been on the committee end….
          just submit an abstract. We are normally desperate for decent sessions that are not clearly sales pitches. If you really want to make sure you are in, find two other people who do similar work and have all three of you submit an abstract and add a note to your submission that you would like to present with the other two.

          You will almost automatically all be given slots and matched up into the same session together. This is perfect for a conference committee.

          Another way to get automatically accepted is to put together a panel of 3 to 5 speakers and submit as a panel session. These are very hard to put together and normally easily accepted.

          Now, for the higher level speakers (key notes, plenary talks, etc), a lot of that is based on reputation and who you know. For those speakers, we want someone who will be a draw for the conference, and since the committee recruits those speakers it will be someone known to them.

          Speaking ability is important. You are going to have to get a lot of presentations under your belt that get noticed by others. You will have an idea of when you are nearing that level though, and at that point you just need to stay in touch with the conference committee members. Expressing interest in speaking is okay, but they will probably reach out first to the people they want.

  16. Elizabeth West*

    This is great advice for cons, too. I always end up hanging out at the writers’ table and attending the panels even if they’re not related to my genre. It’s a fabulous way to network. Because of this schmoozing, I have actual professional connections now.

    Talk to the celebrities of your profession.
    Yes! Of course, some of the ones in mine and related to it are kinda actual celebrities, but almost all creative people have things in common no matter what their means of expression–music, art, writing, acting, etc. This opens up actual conversation topics beyond “Dude, I loved [insert book/movie/tv show/comic/game]!!!” Also, I don’t collect autographs, so in a roomful of people shoving paper and pen at them, I tend to be remembered. (Though I once stood in line for nearly thirty minutes at a horror con to tell Clive Barker how much I loved his books, there were so many people I doubt he remembered me, but actor Michael Berryman did, from another con we’d met at). To keep from being starstruck, I just try to remember that they’re people too; everybody p00ps. :) I hope that keeps me from gabbling madly when I meet an actual Ghostbuster later this month. o_O

    My tl;dr point here is that in the words of Lovey Howell, one never knows whom one might meet. And you never know what could come from the connection.

  17. Megan*

    Can I also say – if you’re a leader/mentor and are attending a conference with any of your staff, please be nice and introduce them to other folks you know. Take them along to networking dinners. I’ve been to so many academic conferences with my “mentors”, only to have them literally turn their back on me to talk with their long-lost colleagues from other universities. It is very hard for a young academic to make connections in a web of socially inept scientists.

  18. David Smith*

    I would add — review your notes at the end of each day.

    I like to end each working day by reviewing my notes, the panels that I attended, the people that I talked to, etc and jotting down action items or ideas to bring back to the office.

    Doing so at the end of the day has netted better results than doing it at the end of the conference. Once you’re back in the office, it’s too late — the pressing matters of the delayed work waiting for you will be overwhelming.

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