How to get the most out of attending a conference

How to get the most out of attending a conference
Me emceeing HackerOne's Security@ User Conference in 2018

I am currently cruising at 32,000 feet within the comfortable cabin of my Canadair CRG-200 jet, en route to San Francisco for BSides SF, RSA, and Purple Cloud Summit. It’s been nearly 2.5 years since these events have happened in person. Needless to say, it’s an exciting week!

I’m a big believer in events, connections that happen in the conference halls, hotel lobby, and happy hours are those that are inevitably stronger. Digital is where we primarily live our professional lives, but physical is the catalyst for deep connection. We are social creatures and in-person events is just a rich part of the human experience and a perk of doing business (free trips and fun times on the company dime!). But a successful trip doesn’t just happen. Here’s how to get the most out of your conference-going experience.

  1. Prioritize planning. Recognize the event starts well before you arrive. The travel logistics, meeting requests and invites, ancillary activities. It’s all part of this complex and elegant dance of conferencing. Set “what does a successful trip look like?” Then make your game plan accordingly. Take the Phil Venables approach of “I get to catch up on reading, meet with colleagues, have intelligent conversations with smart people on new innovations, and invest in my personal brand and my company.” Versus the feeling that “ugh, I have to be on the road, away from family, and listen to boring talks.” Perspective and purpose is the name of the game.
Tip: Don’t over-engineer your schedule. Leave room for the serendipitous. The business “meet-cute” will have long-standing benefits. You can always catch the session recording after the con.

2.  Come early, sit up front. That’s where the action is. Grabbing the speaker when they come off stage, sitting next to their team or friends and strike up a conversation. You will be rewarded even if it’s just with the best view.

3. Engage on social. This is where having an active Twitter account comes in handy. Twitter is the best platform in my opinion for conference connections. Tweeting what you’re up to will open up the opportunity for those serendipitous run-ins and event invites etc. I use LinkedIn more for long-term relationship and marketing value. General guide is: real-time do 75% Twitter, 25% LinkedIn. Long-term, reverse it: 25% Twitter, 75% LinkedIn. Remember, connect on Twitter, continue on LinkedIn.

Tip: Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. Keep this in mind when choosing your restaurants and hotels. Now I’m not saying spend an egregious amount per night on a hotel, I’m saying choose a 4-star but hang out in the lobby of the 5-star.

4. Take notes. One of my first trips to a conference was my second job out of college. I convinced my boss to send me to a Banking Innovation conference. As a part of the deal, I committed to take copious session notes, and write-up my thoughts and experiences of the whole event in a detailed report. It’s an artifact of the conference that can be referred to in the months to come. It’s like an eye-witness account based on your lens of the con. Don’t shortchange yourself by not taking notes. This will help you know if you achieved your success metrics you noted beforehand and convince your boss if the ROI was there or maybe you come to the conclusion that the ROI isn’t there and you shouldn’t attend.

Tip: Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t work the entire plane ride. Give yourself a break. I like what my friend and former HackerOne colleague Amanda Berger told me recently: “I always commit to work on the way there, and relax on the plane ride on the way back.”

5. Be in the room. Invariably you may find yourself stuck in a conversation you don’t want to be in, and likely will be in an experience that will put you outside your comfort zone. Lean into that, force yourself to push through it and you’ll find yourself adaptable. But don’t get stuck in a dead-end conversation or event that’s not yielding value. Which brings me to my next point:

6. When it’s dead, head. If you end up at an activity that’s a clear dud, if possible, leave. It’s like when you start a book you don’t like: life is too short to force yourself to finish books you can tell aren’t good after the first few chapters.  I’ve been known to do the occasional Irish goodbye, French exit or Dutch leave. When you’re done, you’re done. Go back to your hotel and recharge. It’s not always worth that extra drink or additional bar hop, gauge your limits. If you’re done, call it. You’ll be glad you did.

7. Invest in your colleagues. It’s not just about the prospects you’ll meet, customers you’ll re-engage, investors or partners you’ll wine and dine…  a big part of these trade show / conferences is valuable time with your co-workers. You get to know someone on a whole new level when lightning strikes the building where your event is at and the WiFi goes down so you have to take 3 cab rides around Buenos Aires at 8am on a Saturday morning to find the one place that’s open and has a router that you can buy for 10,000 pesos and save your hacking event (yes, this actually happened at h1-504 in Buenos Aires, 2019).

Behind the scenes reality of marketers working a conference or event

8. Follow up. When you meet people, learned something new, or helped organize some sort of content or value, there’s a limited time-window for a meaningful note to be shared. Personalize a few outreaches and “thank you” notes.

Hope you enjoy and employ these tips for your next conference. Looking forward to a great RSAC 2022 week and the exciting buzz that will continue after. Here’s to seeing old friends and meeting new ones.

And if you’re also attending, see you in SF! DM me on Twitter or come hang out at my event, Purple Cloud Summit & Lounge on June 8th! We have great speakers, book giveaways, snacks and drinks, massage chairs and more.

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