You get out of a conference what you put into one. If your guests are not sure why they’re going or are not sure of what you want them to get out of the experience then it’s likely they won’t get it. This blog is our perspective on conferences and how to make them more valuable, engaging, and experiential. Professional conferences take a “cut and dry” approach to training and education forcing the guests to take responsibility for getting the value out of it. With short attention spans, most conferences haven’t changed much.
Conversations are more valuable than the sessions
Surprisingly the most informative, interesting, and educational moments aren’t actually found in the sessions themselves: it’s in the interactions with the other guests. The lectures and panels might provide some new ideas but they are uni-directional and the slides and books used by the speaker are unavailable for later use. However; the unique, personal, and insightful conversations you have with others can only happen AT the conference. This means you need to invest time into connecting with others as if you were going to a party where you only know the host: you must have a networking plan. If you don’t you’ll likely ended up standing alone in a corner somewhere holding a drink, hoping someone will come talk to you. If the conference is well designed there should be team building exercises or work shops where smaller groups can meet for an afternoon or longer and talk about a specific subject of interest. Often these are scheduled early in a conference, granting you access to people you know and can talk to during the rest of the event.
How to spend your time
Other than finding ways to meet people, think about the types of sessions available at most conferences. When I look at an advanced program for an event here’s how we rank the different kinds of sessions:
Workshops: Academic events have slots for small and middle sized groups to spend decent time discussing a topic. The requisites for entry is usually a position statement expressing your point of view on a subject and your references backing up why you’d be a useful member of the workshop. These are frequently the most enlightening sessions and give the largest opportunities to mingle and socialize with intelligent people who are on the same topics you are. Even in a workshop that goes bad, ask the others if they want to go for dinner. Sometimes the conversation over a meal is better than the one’s held in the workshops but it’s the workshops that give you exposure to the right people to have that dinner conversation with.
Special Interest Groups: These ones are usually casually organized and are basically informal workshops. They could be a short day event where people agree to create a new alias to discuss. Or perhaps its an agenda with speakers with mini-session that last one to several days.
Any leader can create one of these simply by making an online group booking. When making a booking you’ll see team building activities as options inside of the booking form. The Wilderness Edge will help by providing the resort facilities, meals, and access to activities and tour guides.
Team Building Exercises: Team building is a foundation of building trust. Exercises can be done in powerful ways to unite people, develop strengths, address weaknesses- but only if the activities are planned and carried out strategically. There’s got to be a real purpose behind doing the exercise- for example, to improve a teams problem solving or ingenuity skills- rather than because you felt like your team needed a fun day outside of work.
Contribute to something: All events have ways people can join in. Anyone can submit an idea, panel session theme, or workshop agenda. There is no better way to meet others and access friendly and interesting people other than getting in on the fun. Even the process of submitting something is beneficial: you’ll spend some time trying to express your work in ways that others can get value out of, which always raises your ability to think and communicate. Even if your submission isn’t accepted you will have benefited. You’ll get feedback from experts and the review committee about your work and writing, which you could consider as a free service to you. Volunteering is a great way for anyone to transform a dull event into something fun and engaging.
Traditional Conference : These are half to full day sessions with a speaker. The sessions are usually lecture like which means a lot of sitting and listening. If you need training on some aspect of your job and can’t find it locally, traditional conferences can be just what you’re looking for. However; the sessions are often long and popular topics or teachers can be hard to find. Ask about conferences you’d be interested in seeing, especially about the quality of the speaker.
Panels : A panel session has a team of four or five speakers sharing a time slot. In better panel sessions there is a diversity of points of view and everyone is comfortable sharing. But all too often, panelists steer away from the intended topic and talk about what they want or they avoid disagreeing with the other panelists to keep things polite. They often feel pressure to represent their company or organization which can inhibit active and provocative discussions. This is why most panel sessions can be boring. It’s up to the organizer to avoid making this happen but since they’re grateful for the panelists to join in the first place, it’s usually difficult to exert control over the tone of the session. Worse; some panels don’t allow for discussion, giving too many “time prepared” presentations from the presenters. For these and other reasons, panels are a wild card, and often result in a fairly bland experience for everyone. When it works though and the right people are invited and do it properly by the organizers way, it can be the most engaging session you’ll see at a conference.
Posters: Some conferences have poster areas, where students and professionals can put together summaries of their work for people to view. This can usually be a lot of fun. We like the fact that it’s an active environment: you walk around to different displays, and drive the experience (rather than the persistent passivity of almost every other kind of conference session). Poster are a great thing to stroll through if you’re bored in the other sessions. Sometimes there are scheduled times where people are running the poser stations so you can ask questions of the people who did the work. This can be very entertaining. Don’t be shy: usually they’re thrilled that someone is looking at their material, much less asking questions. However; posters have a short summary that appears in the proceedings and if it’s a research project, similar material probably exists on a website. So you can get some of the experience after the conference. [If you read a paper later and find it interesting, email the person that wrote it and tell them so. You’ll get a direct line for any questions you might think of]
Demos: Some conferences might have demo sessions where each person or team gets ten minutes to demonstrate a specific design or research project. This can be entertaining to watch if the time limits are short: you’ll notice actual design and work and judge for yourself how useful or interesting it is. If the demos are short, it won’t be long before one demo ends and another one takes the stage.
Paper sessions: During the conferences that are more academic, there are paper sessions where the authors of selected paper submissions talk for just over fifteen minutes about their paper. This is definitely the biggest waste of time for conference attendees. First, if there are proceedings, all of the papers are available to read or skim at your leisure (during the drive home perhaps). Worse, these people were accepted on their ability to write a good paper, not on their ability to engage an audience. In many cases, the presenters simply talk through the same outline and structure that is in their paper, sometimes even scrolling through the actual text of the paper reading it word for word. It’s a very poor use of airtime. Nothing will make the paper authors day more than to get a short note from a peer or colleague telling them they enjoyed the paper. Even better: those short emails can lead to connection that might be reinforce during the next conference.
How to build a plan
A few days before the event, sit down with the proceedings and the guidebook or agenda you’ve been provided and go through it with a pen and mark anything that looks interesting. If you find things that sound great but are vague, flip open the proceedings and check them out. If it looks like something better displayed in a paper then its probably not worth going to. Circle the ones that look interesting and if two or more occur at the same time, flag the one you want to go to first. Then during the actual conference go to the first one you’ve marked and have a plan to bail after a few minutes if you’re bored. Odds are it’s not going to get better after ten minutes. Go to the next session in that time slot that you thought might be interesting. Repeat the same process. Worst case, you can always return to one of the other sessions. The result is that you maximize your time spent in sessions you’d actually enjoy and minimize your time spent bored hoping things would get better. If you run out of sessions to check out, head over to the trade show area if there’s one going on. During sessions is a good time too introduce yourself to the various people at the different stations. I’ve had some of my best conference experiences in conversations that started this way.
After hours conference socializing
Most conferences have scheduled social events or dinners one of the nights during conference. Often, people spend most of their time at these events with people they already knew or the people they can with. If you are attending the conference alone, these events can feel exclusive. I don; think anyone intends for this, but it often nothing is set up to inhibit this. I find these events are often nice, but are in places and environments where it’s really difficult to meet new people. If you can manage it, you want to try to have met enough people in the workshops and other sessions the previous day, that you can wander around at the social and say hello to those you recognize. If you made some decent connections, you’ll be able to jump in on conversations already going and meet more people. Structured receptions aside, everyone who goes to a conference eats dinner whether it’s at the conference or somewhere else. If you can find other people and take them to dinner, you’ll find it’s a great way to build new relationships. When 4:30 pm or 5:00 pm rolls around, everyone person at the conference it thinking about where they’re going to go fir some food, and who they’re going with. Try to set yourself up with a plan early in the day and ask people you run into or meet what their plans are. Often they’ll say they don’t have any which is your ticket to make some for them.
One idea I’ve used is to tell everyone I met that day to meet at 6 pm in the lobby, and for them to tell others the same. Then whoever shows up goes to a close restaurant and breaking into groups if necessary. If you ask enough people odds are pretty high that you’ll have a nice sized group. I think smart conferences provide ways to organize this by having guides or delegates from the conference leading this process, especially for people who;eve never been to the conference before. It’s in their interest to help others make social connections at the conference: the more connections the attendees make, the more likely they’ll return.
Take advantage of being in the Whiteshell Provincial Park
If you have traveled to Wilderness Edge in Pinawa to attend a conference, take advantage of the greenery that’s around you. Most corporations will allow an extra day or more, especially if you’re willing to cover those extra expenses (tell Wilderness Edge when you check in so you can get separate receipts). Part of what makes a conference effective is it’s ability to give you new perspectives, ideas, and experiences, and a great way to do that is to check out what’s unique about the venue you are in. If you want to maximize your chances to socialize and mingle, staying at the same conference Center that’s hosting can be a plus.
Book a guide or self tour of the area. In the beginning of the conference ask others who might want to take a short adventure (or skip on one of the later sessions) to scope out the place. If you end up going with the other conference attendees, you have no reason to feel guilty about doing this. The odds of learning something and making connections are probably infinitely greater if you’re together with people outside of the conference than if you do something inside.
The benefits and drawbacks of going with coworkers.
It’s common to attend a conference with those whom you work with. This is great because you’re more likely to bond more and spend more time together in a way that doesn’t usually happen at your work. I’ve made tons of friends from work just by meeting them for the first time at a conference. One of the tricks is to go to dinner together with coworkers, but also require that everyone bring someone they met during the conference (the only downside to this is you potentially can bore them to death if you and your coworkers have trouble not talking about your company).
Relax and have a good time
I’ve seen many people take conferences way too seriously. I’ve experienced that I learn more if I’m having fun and enjoying the people I’m with. I can’t often do that if I’m stressed out about going to every session on time or trying to achieve a specific agenda. If I’m relaxed and having a great time away from work, I’m more open to new ideas and strategies to what I do when I get back. I feel strongly that it’s the primary reason my employer is sending me to learn. Therefore it’s my job to figure out how to find the state of mind I need in order to best do that. I’m not saying that business trips and conferences should be considered as vacations. Rather I think everyone should be thinking about what the real opportunities to learn are and that it’s difficult to receive those if you’re so focused on cramming as much knowledge per session as possible. Instructional design and educational principles success this. The first rule of training you learn is that most don’t learn very much under stress. As much as we’d like to think that we’re critical to our teams and companies, they can live without us for a few hours. Plan your time before the trip so that while you’re away, you can stay away and focus on what you’re doing out there rather than having your mind back on what’s happening without you. If you have people that work for you, set them up for expected situations that might come. Leave your contact number, and let them call if they need too. Otherwise, don’t check in on them or check your emails everyday. You don’t need too.
How to justify going to conferences
Today it’s more difficult to justify going to conferences. I have a few suggestions that might help towards making the case to checking one out.
You are an asset to your company: All assets require maintenance and upgrades. If instead of being a person, you were a machine, part of the companies budget would be to maintain and upgrade you. Despite not really being a robot, you are an asset to the company. They should be investing the same amount of the budget towards upgrading you as they would the equipment. Offer to train others in what you learned when you return: you can pitch the trip to a conference as a way to bring back skills and knowledge to the rest of the organization. If you have experience in training or teaching, you can then share what you learned with your co-workers. Get extra copies of the notes from other sessions and share the wealth.
Trip report: One for the forms of teaching others is the trip report. It’s a write up of the sessions you went too that you share with the other people in your group. The best reports make it easy for others to dig up the right references or trigger people to ask you questions. There’s rarely much value in ten page reports: no one reads them. Rather, do a two or three page summary with web links and pointers to stuff for specific questions.
Connect the value of the conference to business goals: If operational ease of customer friendliness are company goals, you can say that by sending people to conferences on those subjects, will help pull in more expertise and know-how towards helping the business. This reasoning puts less of the focus on your goals and more on the companies.
Recruiting: One of the reasons to get people to conference is to recruit for the companies open positions. If the team is having trouble finding certain jobs or know that new openings are on the horizon, you can offer to do some recruiting while you’re at the conference. Most conferences will have jobs posted on boards or allow you to rent a booth to represent your company at the trade show.
Professional development: If you have career discussions, tie your career goals with future development goals to specific kinds of training that you need. You might have to rethink which conferences would be good for you (the flashy one might not be the one you actually need). With some organizations, people will get to go to the conference provided they are presenting or doing something in a session. If you don’t know the group’s policy, ask.
Offer to train others in what you learned when you return: You can pitch your trip to a conference as a way to bring back skills and knowledge to the rest of the organization. If you have any experience in training or teaching, you can use that as your justification to attend instead of other co-workers. Get extra copies of the tutorial notes from other sessions. This is often a cheap way to get some extra coverage.
Split the costs: If you really feel this is something you need for your professional development then you should want to go despite whose paying the bill. Offer to split the cost. Or ask just for the time off without having to use your vacation time and just pay your own way. This can be a way of proving the value of the event. It can also set a precedent for you paying your own way, you might position it as a trial so they can fit you in the budget for it for next time.
Random tips that didn’t fit anywhere else
Lots of these could have been general travel tips but they’re related:
Sit near the back if your not planning on staying: If I’m at a conference that has similar sessions, which most do, I usually plan on bailing if I find it boring within ten minutes. Knowing this, I sit at the back just in case I need to leave. The downside to this tip is that sitting in the back does make it more difficult to connect with the speaker in the first place. An alternative is to grab an isle seat.
Ask lots of questions: Learning is a contact sport. If you don’t make it an engaging experience yourself, chances are you’re going to get bored with what’s happening. Talk to speakers, paper authors, booth representatives, your isle neighbors and whoever else. Ask for recommendations for books, articles, other resources or other conferences even. If you don’t get active in participation in your own learning, don’t be shocked when most of it seems irrelevant to you. Some events have breakfast and some don’t. Know this before you find yourself ten minutes into the first session and realizing you’re starving. This goes for snacks and lunch. Sessions tend to start early so you’re not likely to have time to grab something before the conference. Plan for this.
Get some exercise every day: Your mind functions better if your body has been active. At the Wilderness Edge the bikes and canoes are included in your stay and the Trans Canada Trail literally runs across our front yard. Take time to get some exercise at least every other day and skip morning sessions if you have to to get time for this. If you hate exercise and are in a city, go for a walk instead of taking a cab. Personally if I don’t exercise every day I’m really not as alert or the freshest to be around. I struggle with sitting and listening for hours on end and I stress easily. You’ll find your conference experience a little more enjoyable if you went out and sweated a few times during your stay.
Find conferences to go to at www.new.wildernessedge.com
There are a few different places to go, depending on what field your looking for. Google searches with your topic of interest + “conference” can often be the fastest way to find leads.