What Works For You: How to Attend a Conference Without Ending Up Crying

I just got home from a conference I’ve been attending off and on for the last decade. It was the first professional conference I’d ever attended, the place I first learned how to network and navigate a conference experience. The conference itself hasn’t changed much in the last ten years – it continues to have a banquet, a late-night game, scholarships and awards and a commitment to emerging professionals. But in the last ten years I’ve attended my share of networking events, workshops, and conferences in a variety of non-profit, humanities, and advocacy sectors. The truth is, they’re not that different; what you get out of a conference (no surprise!) is determined by what you put into it. And that means conferences can be extremely enriching, but also pretty overwhelming unless you know how to make them work for you.

Here are eight tips gleaned from a decade of non-profit conferences:

  1. Bring your business cards, then actually share your business cards. Ask lunchtime tablemates for their cards. Follow up with these new colleagues soon after the conference with a friendly note. These could really turn into handy colleagues.
  2. Set an intention or two before the conference. Maybe your goal is to hand out 15 business cards, or to meet one or two specific people in your field who you know will be attending.
  3. Live-tweet the conference if possible! Amplifying the reach of individual speakers and the conference in general is a great way to be a good citizen of whatever professional community you’re in—plus it can help position your Twitter as a source of information and yourself as an expert. Live-tweeting is also a great way to forge connections with other people at the conference. I find that live-tweeting is also a great way to take notes.
  4. Take notes however works for you. Review those notes soon after you get home and identify 1-2 actionable takeaways from the event. Even one new skill or shift in perspective can make a huge difference in your work, thought, or practice, and can make the conference itself worth it.
  5. Don’t be afraid to make small talk with the person sitting next to you in a session or at lunch. Ask them about other sessions they’ve attended, about their highlights from the conference so far, what they hope to put into practice when they get home, whether they’ve attended this event before and how this experience might be different from the past.
  6. Wear comfortable shoes.
  7. Say no. Know your own limits. Maybe you need to skip a session to take a walk or grab some more coffee.
  8. Say yes. Stay out a little later than you normally would. Attend a session that’s totally new territory for you. Propose to lead a session yourself.

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