One of the great “must-do” items for your list this year is to attend a national conference. Conferences on any scale offer wonderful formats that can help individuals enhance their professional network and skill set. Conferences create an exciting culture for information exchange, and fuel inspiring possibilities of how we can better serve as professionals. They also provide a much-needed social outlet and face-to-face time for professionals who interact with one another mostly by phone or e-mail.
The most effective way to ensure a successful conference experience is to be clear about why you are attending and to have an organized plan for meeting those goals. Whatever your desired outcome, it is important to present yourself in a way that showcases you as a credible member of the professional community.
Here are some things you can do to maximize your conference experience and to promote yourself in the best possible light.
Take some time to review the conference brochure to see what sessions or speakers interest you. Conference organizers seek to provide attendees with well-rounded speaker selections representing a wide range of topics and viewpoints within the conference's major theme. Strategically mapping out which sessions you'll attend will help to provide structure and meaning to your experience.
When entering a breakout session, try to select a seat in the middle or close to the front of the room. It really helps a speaker to engage an audience if everyone is situated in a tight grouping.
If you are seeking to become more visible in the national professional community, you can get noticed by asking an interesting question at the appropriate time during the session. Take care not to interrupt a speaker during the presentation unless he/she has specifically asked the group to freely contribute their thoughts during the talk. Some speakers leave a block of time at the end of their presentation for questions and do not appreciate being interrupted before then.
Resist cutting into a speaker's time with self-serving anecdotes, case examples, or comments not relevant to the speaker's topic. When you have the opportunity to address the speaker, do so respectfully and succinctly. Speakers welcome provocative questions and often use them as ways to enhance the quality and depth of the points they are making.
If you feel that the speaker can play an important part in your professional development, make the effort to introduce yourself. It is customary to wait to talk with the speaker at the conclusion of the lecture. Briefly introduce yourself, tell the person what about the presentation moved you, and ask if you may correspond with the person after the conference. Make sure to get their information and send them an e-mail after your return to your workplace. This is a wonderful way to begin to integrate yourself into the professional community, to seek mentoring and to gain access to elite circles within your field.
The conference guidebook will list events that are complimentary for attendees. These are networking events that are usually hosted by the conference promoters and sponsoring organizations. There are many opportunities throughout the day to meet colleagues at sponsored snack and coffee breaks, “mocktail” parties, nighttime entertainment events, and off-site visits to local treatment centers. These are wonderful ways to “see and be seen.”
If you want to know who the industry movers and shakers are, watch to see which individuals generate a buzz of activity. Great places to people watch are in the lobby of the conference center and on the exhibit hall floor. Don't be shy! If there are people you'd like to meet, bite the bullet and introduce yourself, or ask someone for an introduction.
You have a few seconds to make a memorable first impression, so use that time wisely. You might want to develop a well-crafted brief personal introduction that includes an “ask” for more time with the individual. Make sure to exchange business cards and to jot down your follow-up notes on the back of their card so you won't forget what you've discussed. Your commitment to following up will be pivotal to your credibility with new colleagues.
Conduct yourself in a way that models inclusiveness and camaraderie. Engaging in pack behavior could brand you in a way that ultimately might exclude you from larger professional networks. That being said, for many veteran attendees conferences also serve as venues for visiting with colleagues and friends. The trick is to keep truly personal interactions separate from your professional responsibilities, and always remember to include the newcomer.
Dress and comportment
It's important both to dress and to conduct yourself professionally at conferences. There isn't a conference dress code per se, but many conference veterans, male and female, dress either in business suits (with or without a tie) or at minimum in business casual attire. Jeans are so common today that they are acceptable if they are “nice jeans” and are matched with a blazer and polished shoes. In general, conference hosts, exhibitors and speakers tend to dress in more classic business attire while attendees can get away with a less formal look.