Need better conversations? Sign up for my email list to get a free chapter of my new book, More Than Just Talk.

Sometimes as I’m reading them I wrinkle my nose and think “Wow, I could never do that!”

No, I’m not talking about the memoirs of the world’s most experienced rock climbers, confessions of serial bank robbers, books written by people who eat crickets as a protein source, or even some of the (ahem) interesting posts people publish on Facebook.  No, I’m talking about articles and blogs on how to attend a conference.

Problem is, most of the articles I’ve read on this topic are written from the point of view of an over-caffeinated, 20-something extrovert who plans to get about four hours of sleep (maybe) over the course of that many days –  and then sleep three days straight upon arriving home.

No, this would never work for me on any level. You see, I’m a confirmed ambivert (half extrovert / half introvert), and although I’m sometimes over-caffeinated, let’s just say my 20-something years are long gone.

So, since many of you have told me you’re more like me than them (no offense to them – but frankly, I’m a bit jealous), I’m going to offer my thoughts on how we mere mortals can attend a conference, get value (and enjoyment) out of it, and not have a total breakdown on Day 2. Maybe some of these tips will make sense and be helpful.

  1. Reflect on (and jot down) your vision/ objectives. Before you purchase your registration or pack your suitcase, pause and ask yourself “Why am I attending this conference in the first place?” Is it because your boss is urging you to attend? Are there people you want or need to meet, presenters you want to hear, and things you want to learn? Are you attending so you can enjoy the city or area in which the conference is held? Are you wanting to get away for a few days to gain the benefits of a change of scenery and amp up your creativity? Are you going because it sounds like a great party?  Are you trying to escape volunteering at your kid’s school carnival  and this sounds better?  What do you stand to gain from the investment in time, energy, and resources? (And yes, there may be times when you go through this process and realize, hey, you’d rather stay home! This has happened to me several times in the last year, and I had no regrets!)
  2. Set your intentions.  What decisions can you make – in advance – about the attitude you will take and the experience  you will have? (I know that sounds crazy, but stay with me here.) For example, before I head out the door to a meeting, to work with a client, to attend a conference, or to present at an event, I make my Intentions List. At the top of the page I write “I intend to…” and below I create a bulleted list of phrases that finish the sentence.  “I intend to: have fun, do my best, be kind, take good care of myself, meet interesting people, listen attentively, learn something new, offer valuable information, be generous, earn a new client or opportunity, meet someone who knows how to help me with [insert latest challenge here]…”  You get the idea.  Setting intentions is very powerful.  It’s essentially setting the standards for how you want to conduct yourself – and for what you want to learn, experience, and attract.  It may sound silly or “woo-woo”, but it’s actually a way to set your brain’s radar (and your attitude). The first time I tried this was before a conference in 2008. I was blown away at the results it brought me. And I’ve been an intention-setting fan ever since.
  3. Leverage the power of purpose and planning, but allow for possibilities. Some experts say you should map out in advance who you want to meet and schedule all your breakfast, coffee, happy hour, and dinner meetings with these people in advance. I say, go ahead and schedule a few, but leave time open for those synchronistic connections and conversations that seem random, but can be just as meaningful and rewarding – perhaps even more so – as those you plan.  When I attend conferences, whether to speak or to learn, I generally have a list of people I want to meet and see. But I also have found that the three best times and places to make interesting and invaluable new connections “on the fly” are: a) at the gym in the early morning, b) standing in line at the coffee shop (both in the early morning and afternoon), and c) at the bar during happy hour (not in the later evening hours).  Then I excuse myself and get to bed early so I can be up and at ’em early in the morning.  This works for me.  You will find what works for you. Along those lines…
  4. Know, honor, and be who you are.  Self-awareness, self-care, and authenticity aren’t just trendy buzzwords. They’re big strategies for how to manage yourself well and show up at your best.  These will help you earn trust, reputation, and success! As an ambivert, I have learned how to flow between my more extroverted, high-energy self and my introverted, need-some-alone-time self.  I can’t go from 6 a.m until 2 a.m, sitting in classrooms, making conversation with strangers, eating sugary pastries,  drinking too much coffee, skipping my exercise routine, ignoring the pack of vitamins on my dresser, and then repeating that crazy process for several days.   Maybe you can. (Or can you?)  Knowing who you are, what serves you best, and what it takes for you to thrive rather than just survive at a conference is critical to creating a positive experience for yourself.
  5. Decide if you’re going for quality or quantity.  I can certainly understand that if you’re running for an elected office, shaking hands with every person in every room could be part of your game plan to attract votes. But perhaps having longer, higher quality conversations with the people who actually fit your vision/objectives/intentions is a better plan. Again, you can make a list of people you’d like to meet. You can also let synchronicity do some of the work for you.  If you know what you’re seeking, you will find the connections you’re seeking.  And it’s likely they will find you!   This mantra also applies to things like conference sessions, dinners out, and even coffee and alcohol.
  6. YES!  You do have permission to leave a conversation that’s going nowhere. Stuck talking to someone who is boring or will not stop talking long enough to take a breath? Is someone trying to put a sales pitch on you? Has that person had a little too much to drink? Or does this person simply not meet your criteria as a good conversationalist or potentially valuable connection?  I have it on good authority from my Top Business Etiquette Connection that you can (and should) exit any conversation that is making you uncomfortable or no longer serving you. Just please do it kindly and graciously. Say something like:”Hey, listen: it was good to meet you, but it’s time for me to mingle around a little / find the restroom / refresh my beverage / head over and talk to my friend [insert name]. Hope you have a great conference…” Something along those lines.  It’s your time, it’s your career, it’s your investment, and you have the right to get what you want out of it.  Be assertive if you need to.
  7. Jot little notes on the business cards you collect.  This is a classic technique for remembering where you met someone and a few details about your conversation, what they do, etc.  If you’re like me, any reminders are helpful – our brains get so full!
  8. When you get home follow up. This is where you will stand out like a champ.  So few people bother to do this that you will automatically be that much farther down the road to success, no matter why you do it. And it’s so easy.  Gather the business cards you’ve collected (toss the ones where you have no clue who the person is or what you talked about) and do a couple of things:  a)  send along a quick personalized email that says something easy and breezy, such as “Hello Bill! It was great meeting you at the [event] in [location] last week. I enjoyed our conversation about _______ at the after-dinner mixer and was happy to meet someone who shared an interest in ___________.  If I can be of service to you, please don’t hesitate to contact me. In the meantime, best of luck with your _________ project.  Sincerely, ______________ ” and b) do something similar to connect with them on LinkedIn. Go to their page and then click the Connect and then the Add Note buttons so you can compose a short note.  Random requests for connecting on LinkedIn don’t work as well.  Also, please consider that just because someone gave your their card, it doesn’t give you permission to spam them or put them on your newsletter list.  If you’d like to add them to your list, ask them first / give them the option to opt in.
  9. Take notes on what worked, what didn’t.  Even if it’s your first conference, it likely won’t be your last.   I always take notes that will help me decide how to make my next conference better. I reflect on everything from whether to have a roommate or not; what shoes felt the best on my poor, tired feet; how many sessions felt like enough, etc.  Each conference is a learning experience (in many way), but only if you learn and make note of what made it a success (or not) for you.

My award-winning success guide The Intentional Networker is loaded with strategies and tips on how you can connect with others with greater purpose, presence, polish and productivity.   It’s an easy, but high-value read and  available from most online book retailers. I’m happy to offer your organization bulk discounts as well.  Contact me at patti[at]intentionalnetworker[dot]com and we can work out details for getting copies to all your people.