It’s conference season! Conferences are important opportunities for government employees. Not only are they a place to learn from other government staff about how they’re solving problems similar to the ones you’re trying to solve, they’re also a window into how private and non-profit stakeholders are approaching key public policy topics. They’re also great opportunities for expanding your network. And it’s all about who you know these days, right?
Our team has been thinking a lot about conferences recently, in part because our team has participated in three different events in three different cities this week alone. But also because more and more, we hear our government friends complain that conferences are a waste of time (and resources). We get it. Conferences are exhausting and sometimes sessions just feel like sales pitches. But, if done right, conferences can be both really fun and really productive. Here is a list of 10 things to do before, during and after a conference to get the most bang for your buck.
Before the conference…
- Define your purpose
Maybe you wanted a few days away from household chores or maybe it’s just because your boss told you to go. But more likely, you’re going because the conference is an opportunity to learn and connect. Having a clear, one-sentence mantra that you can repeat to yourself when your feet hurt at the end of the day will help. Also, it’ll help you get the most out of your time. A recent mantra I used was, “Legacy water systems need to get upgraded, what can our cities do?” That helped me focus my questions, decide whom to engage on the exhibit floor and walk away when the session wasn’t helping me get closer to an answer.
- Review the speakers and attendees list well in advance
Some conferences have helpful apps now, some you just have to use an old-fashioned highlighter. Either way, it can be a real pain, but trust us – it’s worth it. Look for people who are in organizations that matter to you, are speaking about topics that interest you and/or you have a connection to (either because you know them vaguely already or you know someone in common). Then, reach out in advance with a “Saw you were going to be at X next week, really interested in learning about Y. Let’s find some time to grab coffee.” Here, LinkedIn is really your best friend, but emails work well too.
- Strategize on the sessions
So. Many. Sessions. Any conference that a government employee attends is bound to have what feels like a zillion concurrent sessions, most of which will sound pretty interesting (hey, it’s a conference about a topic you’re passionate about right?) Our suggestion: only go to a few. We always learn the most from talking to people, not sitting quietly being talked at. I recommend picking sessions that have the words “workshop” or “roundtable” in the title – they’re bound to be more discussion based and interactive. Also, most conferences these days have short demo sessions or lighting rounds that are always good opportunities to connect with people.
- Set a home base/exit strategy
There are only so many hours you can spend on your feet talking to strangers. We all have limits, so know yours. When you feel yourself losing steam, it’s okay to take a break in a quiet, comfortable place. Pick that place in advance so you have a clear exit strategy. Staying in the hotel? Give yourself enough time to check in before the conference starts. Did you drive? Go sit in the car and blast some of your favorite tunes. That way you can recharge and get back in the game.
During the conference…
- Drink a lot of coffee (and other libations!)
We are not suggesting that you over-indulge on caffeine or booze. But talking around the water cooler is a real thing, and at conferences the “water cooler” is more likely a coffee-bar or a bar-bar. These are great places to comfortably start conversations with folks you don’t know. You never know who you might meet!
- Ask tons of questions
At a conference, you are there to learn and connect. The best way to do both is to ask questions. If you took the time to sit through a session, ask a question. Participating will give you more insight into the topic, and it will identify you to the room and help people find you afterwards. If you’re standing in line or around the coffee station (see above) ask questions to those around you. They can be as simple as, “what did you think about the keynote?” or “what do you think about the conference so far?” A question I used to strike up a conversation recently was, “I’ve never been to Austin, where should I grab dinner tonight?” Those more personal questions elicit personal responses, and that’s how you build connections.
- Put away your smart phone (but have it nearby)
It’s always hard to escape your inbox. You may have even been told to live tweet the event. Both are important, but let’s be clear – a person typing away on their smart phone is not approachable. So, put up an out of office and put your phone away! There is one (and only one) exception: sometimes needing to charge your phone is a good excuse to join a person/group at a table or near a plug. I recently ended up sitting with a Mayor before he did the keynote speech because I needed to charge up. From that conversation, we started a great partnership. So feel free to charge up, but don’t shut down.
- Proactively deal with vendors
We’ve had government colleagues tell us stories about hiding in bathrooms and completely avoiding expo floors to keep from being bombarded with sales pitches. Other government colleagues don’t bring their business cards to conferences. We know that vendors can sometimes inundate government staff with irrelevant pitches – that’s something we’re working hard to address in our industry – but we also know that vendors tend to be very knowledgeable.
Instead of complete avoidance, take advantage of these conversations as another opportunity to learn. Ask very pointed questions like “What decision can your technology help me make?” “How will your technology change my day-to-day job?” or “What project experience does your company have that’s relevant to me?” Most importantly, give vendors clear answers at the end of the conversations. If what they’re doing is not a good fit, say that clearly and explain why. Stringing along (or even worse, ghosting) a sales person will only get annoying for you and frustrating for them.
After the conference…
- Don’t let your learning stop at the conference – follow-up!
Did you hear an inspiring speaker and want to learn more? Don’t let their keynote address only live at the conference. Take the time to follow up with them or their staff to understand if there are practical ways you can incorporate the lessons you learned into your professional and personal life. These folks want to help, otherwise they wouldn’t have taken the time to present at the conference in the first place. To get good results, conference follow up must have a specific purpose.
- Share what you learned
Not everyone from your team, office, department agency, etc. is able to participate in every conference. That means it’s essential that you share what you learned with your colleagues. Lessons don’t have to be complicated. Share something along the lines of “Top 3 Things I Learned at X Conference” or “My Most Important Takeaway from Y Conference.” Sharing lessons learned can take many forms – LinkedIn posts, department newsletters, debriefs at the weekly team meeting – but it’s key to making sure conferences are worth the time.
Conferences can be exhausting but they can also be invigorating. Like anything else, how you feel before, during and after depends on your preparation and mindset. This is our game plan for getting through conference season, but we’re always looking for advice. What are your tips and tricks for making the most out of a conference?