Making the Most of a Conference

Conferences are a great way to bring professionals together to share and generate ideas, make connections between people and projects, and pick up a few skills. They can also be overwhelming in the amount of information thrown at you—both physically and mentally. I’ve been to a few conferences and know that an entire day of back-to-back sessions can be exhausting but also exhilarating.

Next week, I’m off to Chicago for my first ever Annual Meeting of the American Public Health Association. I’m very excited for a number of reasons: I’m presenting a poster, which I’ve never done before; I haven’t been to Chicago since I was ten years old; and this meeting is touted as public health’s biggest gathering, so there will be a ton happening!

I started taking a look at the agenda for the conference and realized that the number of sessions, meetings, and receptions is extraordinary. There’s simply a great deal being offered and not enough time in the three days I’ll be there to attend everything. So, what do I do? How do people make the most of conferences they attend?

I decided to ask my friends and colleagues for their insight and below are some of the great tips they offered:

  • Prep ahead of time: Look at the agenda before you travel and make notes of sessions you want to attend and speakers you want to connect with. Then make a plan to tackle those goals each day you’re at the conference. Trying to figure it out on the fly can be difficult. Also, take a look at anything you want to do in the city you’ll be traveling to and see if there’s a way to work that into your schedule.
  • Mix it up! Vary the types of sessions you attend: presentations, round table discussions, workshops, poster sessions, social hours, and receptions. Each setting offers a new way to learn and meet new people, so it won’t seem like you’re losing attention span because you’re going to the same thing all day long.
  • Download the app: Most conferences have an app and there’s no better way to connect with what’s going on than by having it at your fingertips. Generally, apps let you see what is happening at any given time and where it is (if locations are updated, the app will reflect that) and you can customize your own agenda. Additionally, apps let you connect with presenters and attendees, so if a face-to-face isn’t possible right after a presentation, you can still reach out to someone and find another time to meet them.
  • Say hello: People attend conferences to meet other people so chances are high that if you make the effort to talk to the people you’re sitting next to in sessions or at lunch, they’ll reciprocate. Take advantage of the time before a session starts to introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you and ask what brought them to the conference this year. People have incredible stories and even if you don’t get to them all in the five minutes you’ve got, you’ll at least be connecting with someone on a personal level.
  • Think about application: As you attend presentations and connect with people, think about what you’re learning and how that might apply to your work once you’re back in the office. What are you bringing back from this conference? Learning purely for the sake of learning is fantastic but for true learning to occur in a way that stays with you, application is key.
  • Have fun! Conferences are a big part of our professional lives but they are also meant to be enjoyable. Have a good time learning and connecting with people! Take some time to explore the city you’re in as well. Take a tour, visit a museum, check out a restaurant. Building in breaks will help you be more efficient and focused when you need to be.

Do you have any tips you’d add? Share them in the comments below! And wish me luck next week!

Mehroz Baig is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Hanna Cooper

Great suggestions! APHA is so big, you do need a plan! (I’ll be there too – at Career Mart, doing coaching sessions, so stop by and say hi IRL!). Thanks for these practical tips!

Catherine Andrews

I’m so jealous – at my old job I would go to APHA every year. One of my absolute favorite conferences. Have a blast!

Paula Sen

At one agency I worked for, the travel budget always restricted the number of people who could potentially participate. There was a requirement that the attendees give a presentation on some of conference to those in the group who had to stay behind.