Travis’ Tips for getting the most out of your next conference

I was at a conference recently and got to thinking about how to get the most out of the conference. I had presented early on, so I had time to watch the attendees and really think about how to maximize your time. Like everything, there is a right way and a wrong way to do things, and all of us are somewhere on that sliding scale all the time. In fact, the more I watched, the more I saw myself when I was a Director.

Let’s start with setting the expectations. For most Executive Directors, staff, and volunteers, this may be one of the few chances you have to learn best practices, network with colleagues, and recharge. We need to start thinking about these conferences not as a requirement, but as continuing education that makes us better at our jobs. The more we are committed to learning and improving, the better we will be when we get back home…but it requires us to be attentive.

All of this thinking led me here, wanting to share my thoughts about how to get the most out of attending a conference or class. So, without further ado, here are Travis’ Tips:

# 1 – Turn off your electronics

This may sound pretty simple, but I think you’ll find that it can be one of the most challenging. I’ve been the director with no staff. You feel compelled to keep your phone on so that you’re accessible. You check email to make sure you don’t miss anything. What you’re actually doing is robbing your community of opportunity. By engaging with technology you are not engaged with the conference.

Not only this, you actually become a distraction to those around you. Your phone’s buzzing, your screen is lighting up, or god forbid your phone actually starts ringing (yes, this happens at EVERY conference). It’s pulling others into what you are doing instead of the presentation.

So how can you avoid it? Appoint a point person in your community that can handle emergencies, or serve as a gate-keeper for you. Sometimes your staff or key volunteers will be with you, but chances are there is someone in your community who would be willing to assist you – especially since this won’t be difficult or a big time commitment. Send out an email or update your auto-responder to let people know you’ll be at a conference and not checking email and that if it is an emergency to contact this person. If you give them your cell phone things that aren’t really an emergency will find their way to you. If you direct them to a gatekeeper they will be less inclined to reach out unless it is really an emergency. Then, you can ignore calls from anyone that isn’t your emergency contact. Leave those messages from others until you get back, just like your email.

By removing the technology distraction you will find yourself both more engaged in the sessions and learning more. Yes, some sessions make this one more difficult, but if you don’t allow yourself the technology you may find it easier to stay engaged from the start!

#2 – Network – especially between sessions

When a session gets over everyone has their pavlovian response to dive back into their technology. Fight that urge. Talk to people at the conference. I would also encourage you to not only talk to your friends….make new ones. Introduce yourself to at least 3 new people every day, and give them your business card (that’s what you have them for)!

Use the time before, during, and after sessions to network with other people. Talk to them about your struggles and ask for their input. Share your successes, and talk about things you’ve seen that are going well for you.

This will build your network of people that you can talk to when you need help. It will also help keep you more engaged in the sessions and getting excited about going to the next event.

#3 – Take in the town

These conferences can be a gift. We get to go and experience a new place, so take advantage of it. Walk around their town, talk to store owners and residents about their community. See for yourself what’s working, and what isn’t.

Experience the culture, the art, the atmosphere as much as possible. This will help continue your networking, and help you take more away from the conference. This doesn’t mean that you skip sessions to shop, but we can all work in the time to explore. Maybe you get up early and go for a walk downtown, or take a friend and go to dinner instead of sitting in the hotel. Whatever it is, experience the community.

Then, let the hosts know! Especially If you hear something really great, let them know that their community made a great impression. Tell them what you were impressed by. They will appreciate it.

Recap – Make sure you take something away

I always look for three major things that I can take away from a conference. Sometimes there are only two, but I am always looking for three. What are three key things? Maybe it is projects you can do when you get back, perhaps it is a new funding source, or maybe a new way of thinking about things that will get people excited. Whatever it is, you can usually come up with three key takeaways.

That isn’t to say there are only three things you can take away. Jot down those little notes and “finds” even if they aren’t one of your big three. When you get back, share them! Send the new product you found to a developer, share the funding source with an organization that can use it. However and whatever it is, don’t keep the information to yourself! This can also help make you an expert in the eyes of your community.

I would suggest that you do a recap for your board, or even write a press release about your time at the conference. You can share your take aways and help people understand why you were gone.

If you can do these things, you will find that you will get the most out of every conference, director’s retreat, and educational seminar. You’re organization and your community will benefit from your time away and you will come back energized and excited to put into practice the new things you’ve learned.