here we go a-conferencing!

Next week is our industry’s primary annual conference – the Ivy Plus Alumni Relations Conference. Cornell is hosting, and since I was snowed in last year while visiting, I’m looking forward to lovely weather and having more than two sets of clothes while there. In light of this upcoming visit, I wanted to post some suggestions about attending a conference – of course, some of these unique to being in a less-competitive industry like higher education.

99%, the think tank for Behance posted their 5 conference tips recently:

  • Separate the wisdom from the action.
  • Distill every talk down to one key takeaway.
  • Defy structure to mine the circumstantial.
  • Plan private gatherings with like-minded folks.
  • Process business cards for follow-up in real-time.

I think these are pretty good tips. Here’s a few best practices I like to follow, especially when there’s a group from your office all attending the same conference:

Prepare. Bring business cards, brush up on your numbers (for me, that means reminding myself about general statistics on our alumni population), and bring printed materials to share with others. If you have a successful program and you know others will be interested in learning more, bring some background material to have at your disposal.

Don’t skip out on any sessions. Work pays for conferences and it’s not a joyride. That sounds tough, but it’s true. You might have e-mails piling up or other work, but you need to put it aside and take advantage of all of the benefits of a good conference – great content, mingling with co-workers and networking with peers. Trying to squeeze in other work doesn’t allow you to get the most out of a conference.

Keep a running idea list for your organization. Conferences always give you some kind of notebook. I take notes during sessions, but I also keep a list on the back page of specific ideas I should consider for my own projects when I return. This puts all the ideas in one place and creates a set of action items or possibilities to think about relevant to your own work. If you have some involvement in organizing the conference in the future, it’s also a great place to list potential changes or additions to future meetings (maybe unique to my position, being in an events department).

Mingle with other people and spark up conversations. Professional conferences end up being a unique chance to bond with fellow co-workers. The challenge is in finding the right balance between sticking with your group and making sure to connect with others during your time there. I tend to gather with the Stanford folks at meal times (unless they are round tables around my professional area) and then sessions, sit next to people from other schools. If your organization has planned attendance thoughtfully, your organization should be spread out with not everyone attending the same session. Sometimes my best conference takeaways have been from lingering conversations after sessions or in the optional conference activities.

Write down all the conference followup with peers. How many times at a meeting have you said, “I’ll get back to you on that?” and how many times have you actually followed through? This happens a lot at conferences, so I keep a list of names and what I’m following up on a separate page of my notebook. Upon returning back to the Bay Area, I try to get to all of these follow-ups within a week. Your peers will appreciate it and you’ll be doing your best to keep the connection alive.

Speak up and share information. I’ve noticed co-workers in sessions sometimes withholding information and I don’t always understand that. Share and share alike is true, and the more knowledge you’re offering up, the more you’re likely to receive. In particular, if your industries are not competing, there’s nothing to lose.

Bring back wisdom to the office. The thing about conferences is that not everyone can attend. Usually 10-15% of our organization attend this Ivy Plus Alumni Relations Conference, and about half of these folks are regulars. Here’s a few things you can do to share:

  • Take time out of a staff meeting after you return to share some of your learnings, especially those relevant to your organization.
  • Connect your staff with other staff from institutions in similar roles
  • If there are LinkedIn groups, Facebook pages, listserves, etc – let your co-workers know so they can stay current as well.
  • Pass along readings, resources or other conference materials co-workers might find helpful.

Spreading the information will only make your organization as a whole better and stronger.

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