Attend Your First Professional Conference
Posted on January 21, 2015
Your request to attend has been accepted by your supervisor, your registration fee has been paid, the travel reimbursement forms are at the ready. Congratulations! You are about to attend your first professional conference. But how do you make the most of this professional development opportunity, especially when you may feel like you have no idea what to expect? It may feel overwhelming, but with a little preparation and an open mind you can make your first conference experience a positive one. Here’s how.
Before you attend your first professional conference
Some conferences have hundreds of attendees. Some have thousands. Some feature raucous, inspiring keynote speakers. Some focus on deliberation and debate about the current state of the field. Spend some time before the conference learning about its culture. Something as simple as not knowing the dress code at a conference can cause anxiety for newcomers. Is this the kind of conference where a comedy t-shirt and jeans would be totally appropriate and a suit would be out of place? Or is it the other way around? Take a look at the conference website for photos from past years. While you’re at it, check to see if the conference or the sponsoring association has a presence on Flickr or Instagram. Sometimes just seeing past conference attendees in action can allay fears for a first-time attendee.
And speaking of social media, some conferences have a very active community on social networks like Twitter, Instagram, Flickr, or LinkedIn. Some do not. Before the conference, check the conference or association website to see if they are promoting a hashtag like #heweb15 for HighEdWeb 2015 or #caseacmb for the CASE Annual Conference on Marketing and Branding. If so, start following that hashtag on the networks you care about in the run-up to the conference. Use it to participate as well. Ask questions, or respond to other attendees’ tweets or posts. If you are active on Twitter, review the conference program and check to see if any of the speakers are also on Twitter. Follow them before the conference so you gain a better sense of them as people and as professionals before you arrive.
Finally, ask questions. If you have a specific issue that is causing you concern (Should I check in before or after the welcome reception? What is the best way to get from my hotel to the conference venue?) don’t let those little niggles fester. Just ask. Conference organizers are there to help.
During your first professional conference
I have been organizing and presenting at conferences in higher education for ten years now. And in my opinion, there are two reasons to attend a conference. First, you attend a conference to learn specific job skills or to keep your skillset up-to-date with the latest techniques and approaches in the field, whether you work in IT, student affairs, advancement, recruiting, or communications. And second, you attend a conference to meet and become professional colleagues (and even friends) with your fellow attendees and practitioners in the field. The first area is covered by the conference program: the talks, sessions, and workshops presented by the conference speakers. The second can certainly happen during those talks and sessions, but usually happens during networking opportunities: receptions, ice breakers, side trips, parties, and meals.
A conference attended by hundreds of new faces can absolutely be overwhelming. And don’t worry if you need to take care of yourself and grab some quiet time from time to time. But by the same token, don’t skip out after the program sessions are over and head back to your hotel. The attendees at this conference are your colleagues; you just haven’t met them yet. They will become your professional network in this field. When the conference is long over, they will be the people who you can email or tweet at or follow on LinkedIn. My best friends and greatest sources of help and wisdom are the people I have met over the years in real life at conferences.
For a first-time attendee, you may feel like everyone already knows each other and you are an outsider. But remember that for most conferences of any significant size, a large chunk of the attendees in any given year—often close to half, depending on the group—are first-timers just like you. Some conferences will have special orientation sessions or lunches for newbies. Seek these out and attend them, if you can.
Finally, commit to meeting some new people during the conference. If you are attending the conference with work colleagues, use this as an opportunity to get to know them outside the office, to bond over common grievances or shared successes. But don’t stick with the work crew the whole time. Make a goal of introducing yourself to three new people a day. You already have something in common: you’re both attending this conference. If you attend a presentation you really like, introduce yourself to the presenters later and congratulate them. Believe it or not, presenters are nervous, and they love to hear from attendees who think their session went well.
After attending your first professional conference
When the conference is over and you’re back in the office, you can oddly feel a bit let down. Maybe you just spent two or three days hearing about all the amazing things people at other institutions are doing, and you can’t see how you could ever do those things at your school. Don’t let yourself get discouraged because you can’t implement All The Things at once. Focus on one or two specific ideas that inspired you and draw up a plan for how you might proceed along that path in your own work. At HighEdWeb, we call these ideas the “golden nuggets” — what one or two things can I make some real progress on in the next semester or year?
Before the after-conference “high” wears off, be sure to document your key takeaways from the conference to share them with your boss or your colleagues. What trends did you see running through multiple presentations? What seemed to be the “next big thing?” How will these new ideas apply to or impact what you and your team are doing now? Documenting this now will help both you and your co-workers justify attendance at future conferences.
And finally, don’t forget to continue to follow up with both presenters and attendees when the conference is over. Most presenters include contact information at the end of their talks. That’s because they are happy to be contacted. If there are one or two sessions that stood out, email the presenters a couple weeks later and let them know how much you appreciated them sharing their knowledge.
In his “best of the conference” award-winning presentation at last year’s HighEdWeb, the wonderful Dave Cameron offered these words of wisdom: “Don’t be afraid of the rock stars.” This has become a bit of a mantra for me. After all, every conference presenter was once a first-time attendee, too.
About the Author
Lori Packer is the web editor at the University of Rochester, where she and her team are responsible for the design, maintenance, and content development for several central University websites, including the University’s homepage and news site. Lori is also part of the design and editorial team for Futurity.org, a news site hosted at Rochester and focusing on the latest innovations coming out of the world’s leading research universities.
Before coming to higher ed, Lori was the lead U.S. editor for MSN Search — Microsoft’s pre-Bing search engine. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Lock Haven University and a master’s degree in communications from the University of Washington. She recently completed her MSLIS from the iSchool at Syracuse University, because libraries are amazing. Lori is a Phillies fan, a beer snob, and an insomniac who tweets at @LoriPA and blogs at goddessofclarity.com. She is a huge geek who loves Supernatural, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Game of Thrones. She could go on.
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