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Summary:

This week, I’ll be attending SXSW; I’ve been thinking about ways to make sure that I get the most out of it. Here are my tips to make sure that you get as much value as possible for the time and expense associated with conference attendance.

SXSW Party

This week, I’ll be attending South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW), so I’ve been thinking about ways to make sure that I get the most out of this event. Last year, I posted 10 tips for enjoying SXSW, but this time around, I wanted to share ways to make sure that you get as much value as possible for the time and expense associated with attending any conference.

Planning

For a while, I gave up pre-planning almost entirely and relied on serendipity or conversations with other attendees to guide my way to sessions. While this works to some extent, I found myself missing too many interesting sessions. So now, I’ve started pre-planning sessions that I want to attend, and for large conferences, like SXSW, I identify two or three at every time slot, which allows me to pick the one I’m in the mood to see, and also gives me a backup in case my first choice was a dud or too crowded.

I also try to pick a variety of types of sessions so that I can get a broad range of knowledge with some more technical talks and others leaning toward community or business topics. I also try to pick speakers who have done amazing things to get more insight into the stories behind their success.

Finally, I’m always prepared to deviate from my plan to see sessions based on recommendations from other attendees or to take advantage of other interesting opportunities at the event. If I’m in a session that turns out to be a snooze, I’ll do a quick check on Twitter to see if friends are raving about another session that I might want to catch instead.

Conversations

Don’t underestimate the value of the “hallway track” where you can have interesting conversations with amazing people outside of the traditional conference format. This is an especially important side-effect of conferences for those of us who regularly work remotely or who work in a job with few peers within our own company. I’m not saying that you should spend all your time chatting with friends, but it is important to balance sessions with time spent talking to other people in your field. This is an opportunity to build lasting personal and professional relationships with smart people working in similar roles.

Make sure you attend the parties or meet up with other people for meals. While this might feels like goofing off, it’s really one of the easiest ways to get to know other people in your field. Resist the urge to go back to your hotel early and be careful not to hang out with the same few people during the entire conference. Take advantage of all of these opportunities to talk to new and interesting people, and make an active effort to renew relationships with people you’ve met before while making sure that you also spend time meeting new people.

Ditch Work

I know, you are incredibly important, and you can’t possibly ignore your work for more than a few minutes at a time. However, if you spend all of your time at the conference on email and calling into meetings, you might as well have saved some money and stayed at home to work. If you really want to get the most value out of the conference, you’ll put off what you can and delegate the rest to someone else for a few days.

Follow Up

Most of us leave a conference with a big pile of notes that we never look at again. You really need to do something with all of that information. I usually try to get a few blog posts out of each conference, or at least one post with something interesting that I learned. If you work with a team of people, a short trip report to share what you learned with your team might also be a good idea.

I also try to come up with at least five things that require some additional work on my part, and I add them to my task list. These might include an idea for a new project I want to start, something I want to implement in my current job, an interesting technology that I want to learn or someone that I want to follow up with on a specific topic. By getting these out of the huge pile of notes and onto my task list, I’ve drastically increased the chances that I will actually do something rather than forget all about it when I return home.

What are your favorite tips for getting the most value from attending a conference?

Photo courtesy Flickr user Kenneth Yeung

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  1. Carolyn Tidwell Wednesday, March 16, 2011

    I have provided pre-conference workshops on this subject and there are two additional suggestions I’d like to provide. If you receive an attendees list with your registration packet, name tag, etc., identify the attendees you wish to reconnect with and those you’d wish to meet. Set a goal to meet at least 5 new people each day AND always notate on the list at the end of each day, meal, etc. who you have met with a note citing something unique you discussed with this new contact. Upon returning to the office, send an email indicating how great it was to meet them, citing that unique topic of conversation to possibly continue the connection.

  2. NoahJon Marshall Saturday, March 19, 2011

    If there is a speaker/presenter who is well known or who are a fan of and you plan on meeting them, think of something interesting and unique to start the conversation/break the ice. Everyone there will say “I’m a big fan” or “I really liked your book or website” but if you can find a nice little niche starter than does not go into stalking or obsession territory, not only may they engage you in further conversation on the spot, but may even remember you and establish a social media relationship in between in person reconnections.

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