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13 Ways to Make Sure You Get Your Money’s Worth from Your Next Conference

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conference session Have you ever been to an industry conference where you ponied up as much as a thousand dollars or more and the conference really sucked? Can I tell you something? Now, this may sting a little bit so do yourself a favor and strap on your big boy or girl pants and get ready. If it sucked, it was all your fault.

I know, I know. You didn’t book the speakers or schedule the keynotes. You weren’t in charge of the venue. You didn’t choose the subject matter. In fact, other than buying a ticket and showing up with your iPad and your fired up Twitter account, you had nothing to do with it, right?

Exactly my point.

I don’t care how much it cost you, how many people were there, where it was located, what venue it was in, who was speaking or what company it was run by. The success of that event for you is in direct proportion with the effort you put into it.

Here are the facts. You are thrown into a room with speakers that are oozing value and want to share it with you. Attendees that are there to learn are also scouring the place looking to meet new people within their industry. Vendors are paying a lot of money for a mere few minutes of your time just to show you what they do.

There are opportunities everywhere. If you missed them, you blew it.

But you don’t have to blow it next time. That’s what this article is about. It’s 13 of the best little bits of advice I have to give you to make sure your next conference is an overwhelming success. Whether I am there as an attendee or a speaker this is the mindset I have when I walk into that room. And this is why I always leave with more value than anyone else there. It works. Trust me.

1. Bring 25 Business Cards with You Each Day

No more. No less. I know this goes against conventional wisdom which states that you should bring two for every person within a 25 mile radius of the convention hall. Don’t. If you bring a lot of cards you are going to want to give them all out. That’s when you become that guy. You know that guy. The one handing out business cards as if he was dealing blackjack. Nobody likes that guy. Nobody respects that guy. And nobody remembers that guy. By bringing only 25 cards you are forced to seek out and create 25 quality relationships throughout each day. That means spending more than just a few minutes with someone. It means really discovering who they are. It means telling them something interesting about yourself instead of attempting to sell them. This is called building a relationship. Wouldn’t you rather have 25 new friends instead of 1,000 less business cards?

2. Eat Lunch in the Conference Center

I don’t care if you bring your lunch or go out and get something and bring it back. There is no eating outside of the convention center. Even if it’s a nice day. You aren’t likely to find a small empty table with one chair or a quiet corner that nobody else knows about inside which means you are going to have to sit with a bunch of strangers. It’s a great opportunity to stretch outside of your comfort zone and build a few new relationships.

3. Be Friends with the Ushers that Check You in at the Door.

You know those folks that stand in front of the door to check you in to each track? Well, believe it or not they are human beings! And they have cool stuff like feelings and personalities! Get to know each of them…sincerely. Be nice to them. Joke around with them. Have a little fun with them. Make them smile. The benefit? You will meet some nice people. And there may be a time or two where you are let in early or allowed into a sold out track while everyone else is turned away. Hey, friends hook each other up. Just be sincere. Like most people, they can smell a skunk a mile away.

4. Sit in the Front Row

If this were a concert you would knock over women and children to get to the front row. Yet at a conference, you tend to find the “safe” seat. The one towards the back with easy access to the exit. Instead, force yourself to sit in the front row for each track. Sitting in the front row assures that you aren’t going to drift into lala land, check your e-mail, play Angry Birds or partake in a host of other attention stealers while the speaker is talking. You have no choice but to be totally present. An active listener. You know…the reason you came here in the first place.

5. Clear Your Entire Schedule for the Week

A lot of stuff goes on during the week of the conference. Parties, keynotes and various after hours hangouts are as much a part of the conference as the tracks themselves. I once missed a really good keynote and networking party because I booked a speaking engagement well after the last track not realizing there would be some cool after hours stuff going on. I missed out. Trust me, it’s better to just clear your entire schedule and make room for anything that might come along.

6. Schedule Your Sessions One Day in Advance

The night before the first day, read through every track on the schedule. You can usually find them posted on the conference website. If not, get there at least an hour early. Pick the top two tracks you want to attend in each time slot for the first day only. Put them on your calendar by adding a 1 for your first choice and a 2 for your second. Make sure you include the track name, speaker and room number as well. If for some reason you either don’t like the track, it was cancelled or the room is full, head over to your second choice. At the end of the day just repeat by creating your schedule for the next day. Just be sure to only schedule one day at a time in case you catch a new speaker or subject matter that you now want to check out the next day.

7. Be the First to Ask a Question

Most tracks end in a Q&A session which tends to result in a blown opportunity for a majority of the room. I don’t get it. The speaker is likely someone that you have been hounding on Twitter for months in an attempt to get their attention and yet now that you have it the little voice in your head tells you not to get up and ask. Don’t listen. Being the first to ask a question gives you an opportunity to introduce yourself not only to the speaker but to a room full of like-minded people. If that doesn’t sell you, this might. A speaker’s biggest fear is that uncomfortable silence that comes after asking for questions and no one jumps out of their chair. A lot of speakers tend to reward those brave souls that step up first by giving away copies of their book or free admission into their programs. Free stuff is awesome.

8. Seek Out the People Running the Conference

Get to know the people behind the curtain. They are usually pretty awesome. Sometimes not, but in my experience, pretty awesome covers it. The reason I am writing this post is because I got to know a few of the people that ran BlogWorld and grew to really like them. I get the feeling that I’m one of their favorite people in the whole wide world as well. (The previous statement cannot be confirmed or denied at this time.) The only thing I would caution you with here is not to get to know them with the expectation of getting something in return. Life doesn’t work that way. Get to know them because they are cool people with a cool job. If you get some insight or a foot in the door along the way make sure that it is because they recognized that you have a lot of value to offer. Not because you’re a suck-up.

9. Don’t Tweet During the Tracks

I know this is not a very popular one. Sorry. I’ve watched too many people come to these things and stare at their Twitter screen waiting for the speaker to say something profound. And then spend the next few minutes trying to figure out a clever way to cram it into 140 characters. Ultimately they end up missing a bunch of other stuff that gets said in the meantime. Stop. Take good notes instead. Write down the good quotes and then during a break you can Tweet away. Sure, you may not be as timely as some others but more importantly you didn’t miss anything. Ultimately that’s what counts! Your Tweet only lasts for a few minutes. The knowledge you pick up by actually paying attention can last a heck of a lot longer.

10. Follow Each Speaker on Twitter

After each track, make sure you are following the speaker on Twitter and give them a shout out. Thank them by pointing out one solid thing that you picked up from them. First, it’s a nice thing to do. The speaker likes to know that they have reached their audience. Second, it’s a good way to get on their radar. Bonus points if you asked them a question during the Q&A so they recognize you when you Tweet them!

11. Visit and Speak with Every Single Vendor

The majority of these conferences have an area set aside for vendors to have a booth and pitch their wares. Most of us tend to stop by the booths with the best swag. But you’re not most people. Not anymore. Rather than just roaming around and stopping at one or two vendors, start at the beginning and visit each one. Don’t stop until you have talked to every single vendor. It will give you a chance to see what other companies are doing. Who knows, you might even find some synergy with a company that you normally would never have come across. Heck, you might even meet some cool people. And if all else fails, you’ll end up with a new wardrobe of free t-shirts and squeezy balls with someone else’s logo on it.

12. Get Yourself Interviewed

Often times you will see folks with cameras or podcasts looking to interview speakers and attendees. Pretty much anyone with half of a personality. Do whatever you can to get in front of them to be interviewed. I know, you aren’t camera material. Even more reason to get out there. It’s a great opportunity to practice being interviewed. It may even turn into a good promo piece for you! Free promotion! And who is going to turn down free promotion!?!?

13. Shut Off Any Work Related Stuff

Leading up to the conference make sure that you have any necessary systems in place that allow you to leave work behind for a few days. Don’t waste the time in between tracks distracted by work related e-mail or calls unless it’s an emergency. That time should be spent networking, visiting the vendors, going to the book signings, talking to speakers, meeting the people running the conference and all of the other stuff we have been talking about up until now. It’s a great opportunity and it’s only around for a few short days. Use your time wisely.

The easy part is done. Now comes the hard part. Actually doing it. Regardless of whether you are a newbie or an old pro at attending conferences, I challenge you to take each of these on and see what kind of results you get at your next conference.

Do you have any tips that help make the conferences you attend a big success? If so, leave them in the comments below and let’s keep the conversation going!


Feedback

11
  • shethinksmedia

    @marcensign Good tips! Thanks for sharing! #blogher12

  • WordsDoneWrite

    I love these suggestions, Marc. If everyone followed this advice, I have no doubt that they’d get a lot more bang for their conference buck. Thanks for sharing these tips with us!

    • MarcEnsign

       @WordsDoneWrite No problem!! But I kind of hope not too many people do because then I would have to fight to be first in line to ask a question. 🙂

  • Ronie Walter

    You got a good point. Many people will benefited upon reading this subject. This is not only interesting but also informative. 

  • ianmcleary

    Hey Marc,
     
    Great tips, a couple of additional ones:
     
    1.  At night and early morning spend some time on twitter figuring out who is at the event.  Follow them on twitter and arrange to meet them the next day.  There’s plenty of great people in the audience that you don’t want to miss.
     
    2. For any speaker you want to meet read their book, their latest blog post and their recent tweets. You want to have a good conversation.
     
    3. Be Yourself.  Speakers are normal people that like to meet nice, chatty, friendly, fun people.  Be Yourself.
     
    4. Talk to speakers before their talk.  Arrive early.  You don’t get as much attention when there’s a queue.  It’s much easier to chat with them before they talk.
     
    Ian

    • MarcEnsign

       @ianmcleary Thanks for the additional tips Ian! 
       
      1) Absolutely! That’s kind of an extended version of #10. If you not only follow them but can build up a little rapport leading into the conference you will have a much easier time not only meeting them but continuing to build on the relationship.
       
      2) Another great one. At least their blog if nothing else. Sometimes it’s tough to read everyones book in the days before the conference.
       
      3) This one should be a given all the time. Always be yourself. If someone doesn’t like you because of it, move on. No sense losing sleep over it.
       
      4) I found that sitting in the front of the room was a great opportunity to talk with the speakers as they patiently waited in the front to go on. I struck up a ton of conversations that were some of the highlights of the conference for me!
       
      Nice job Ian!

  • Brad

    And a few more…
     
    1. Bring a recorder & mic and conduct ad hoc interviews with those that have something relevant to say about your areas of interest.  Great content for podcasts (get permission first, of course), as well as a good record for yourself of who you met and what you learned.
     
    2. Set aside 30 minutes each evening to reflect on what you heard & from whom, what you saw, etc.  Write it down your key reflections along with a list of action items for the rest of the conference and post-conference.
     
    3. The night before, or the morning of, each day of the conference, review the schedule (again) and set realistic goals. During the lunch break, take a few moments to review your goals and regroup before the afternoon sessions kick in.  The better you know what you want out of the day, the more likely you are to accomplish it. 

    • MarcEnsign

      Thanks for the add Brad! Sorry. Couldn’t resist making it rhyme. I know. Super lame. All good suggestions! I really like number 1. Of course there are a bunch of permission issues especially if you wanted to record the tracks (which most conferences won’t allow) but a couple of interviews would be really cool. Don’t just leave it at the speakers though! Interview a bunch of the folks that are attending too! There is always something to learn from anyone!

    • Rick Calvert

      That is a great tip for any content creator Brad! Lot’s of people are recording audio and video interviews at our show but you can really do that at any tradeshow or conference. An industry tradeshow brings out everyone in that particular industry.

      It is a rare opportunity to get access to CEOs, super star celebrities, ground breaking entrepreneurs and just interesting people.

      Try walking into the offices of Ford and asking to interview the CMO. If you were at NMX last year in LA you could walk up to him and ask directly.

  • Nancy Bobbert

    These are great tips. The only thing that I could think of to add to this is to stay at the on-site hotel. Even though you may save money going off site, you miss a lot of networking opportunities that way. Of course it should also go without saying: get out of your room and socialize. Spend the time getting to know everyone as people and not just as a speaker,blogger or what have you. They will appreciate it and remember you after the conference.

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