‘Tis that time of year again, my friends…the ATD International Conference & Expo (some call it “ICE”) is coming up soon (less than 2 weeks away as I write this!), and I am simply giddy with excitement. I’m not ashamed to admit that one reason I’m giddy is because this year’s conference is in San Diego…here in Indiana, we can’t seem to kick the winter doom-and-gloom to the curb, so the delicious SoCal sun is beckoning! I’m also giddy because every year, this conference exceeds my expectations. The speakers and sessions are terrific, and I get to spend a few days learning and geeking out with some really awesome, smart, creative people.
Top-notch events like ICE also make me reminisce about some of the not-so-excellent conferences I’ve attended over the years. Sometimes, the content missed the mark or the speakers were sub-par. Other times, logistical issues have plagued the entire event. Occasionally, I’ve simply felt out of place or disengaged for one reason or another. Fortunately, in my experience, the “hits” far outweigh the “misses.”
So what do you do if you attend a conference, and it’s a dud? You make some lemonade out of those plastic conference buffet centerpiece lemons! Here are a few tips:
If the sessions are irrelevant, boring or otherwise underwhelming:
- Have a backup plan. When there are multiple breakout sessions in each timeslot, I try to mark more than one that seems to be of interest. After a few minutes, if a session is not meeting my expectations or is shaping up to be different than the description indicated, I quietly slip out and make my way to my backup choice. For big conferences like ICE, it’s important to map out a game plan in advance – there are dozens of sessions from which to choose in every time slot. So a little preparation can help you with this!
- Chat it up. Take an opportunity before the session begins, during a small group discussion segment or as the session wraps up, to say hello to someone new. Ask why they chose that session….even if the content being delivered isn’t the greatest, perhaps you’ll make a connection with someone who wants to learn the same thing and you can discuss it on your own terms.
If you’re an introvert and you don’t enjoy “mingling” during networking events or cocktail receptions:
- Quality over quantity. Personally, I’d much rather have 2-3 meaningful conversations than blitzing around a room swapping business cards all night. Seek out a familiar face (or find someone who looks equally uncomfortable!) and say hello. If you’re not a master at small talk, prepare yourself with a couple of safe, open-ended questions to get a conversation started.
- Continue a conversation from earlier. Did you start a conversation with someone earlier in the day, only to be interrupted by the next scheduled session? Wrap up by asking the person, “I’d love to learn more about that project (or whatever). Will you be at the cocktail reception later?” — then make sure to seek him/her out!
If you find yourself disengaged during keynotes or general sessions:
- Viva la hashtag. Sometimes, the best conference a-ha moments aren’t delivered by a speaker at all. Follow the event hashtag on Twitter to discover fascinating people and learn interesting facts, quotes and insights. Share your own thoughts and retweet your favorites to fuel the conversation!
- Seek out ONE USEFUL NUGGET to apply in your role/life. Even when I haven’t been completely engaged in the session itself, I make an effort to find something that I can apply somehow. Maybe it’s taking the topic back to my team to get their opinion and start a discussion. Perhaps I just really like the presenter’s slide deck design and want to try their technique. Maybe the presenter’s viewpoint is the polar opposite of my own, and I get a little fired up…don’t get me started about the time a keynote (and well-respected industry leader) was bashing on 70:20:10, and I was presenting a breakout session later that day on leveraging 70:20:10 in onboarding to engage new employees. No, he didn’t realize that, and it certainly wasn’t intentional. But man…awkward.
Bottom line: Even the “meh” conferences can be salvaged. At the core, all conferences are wonderful opportunities to connect with like-minded colleagues, so take advantage of these chances to learn, share and grow with others! Like most things, we reap what we sow. If you go into the event thinking it will be miserable, you will be miserable. If you look for opportunities to make the most of it, you certainly will.
Your turn: What are your strategies for making the most out of conferences? Share a comment below – your advice can help your fellow conference-goers, rookies and seasoned attendees alike!
Looking for a few other conference-related posts? Check out these oldies-but-goodies!