12 Tips to Own Your Next Conference

To develop and improve practices, it’s necessary to get away from the comfort and safety of your desk or classroom. Going to conferences, networking events and professional development opportunities gives us all a chance to recharge, connect with like-minded peers, get challenged to consider new perspectives and expand our knowledge and skills.

There are hundreds of education conferences every year (here’s 23 to consider). Whether a national EdTech conference or a smaller scale symposium, every event you attend should be viewed as an opportunity to grow your personal network. We’ve found that attendees aren’t always aware of how to best tap into that  full opportunity! Here’s 12 tips to remember as you plan for your 2015/2016 conference season:

#1. Approach it as an Investment

Attending conferences and events isn’t cheap and your time is valuable! Approach each event as an investment opportunity–an investment in yourself, in your work and in your mission. Before attending a conference, research the event’s website, agenda and social media sites. These resources will tell you who is speaking, who may be attending, what topics will be covered and what types of networking opportunities there will be. Based on the audience, networking opportunities and engagements, set goals and expectations before you leave. Going in with an idea of what you want to get out of the event will help increase and impact your return on investment, both personally and professionally.

#2. Plan Ahead

Before you leave review the session program and spend time reading descriptions. Plan out your time at the conference and make a list of the sessions you don’t want to miss. This will help you feel prepared and will allow you to really engage in each session instead of spending the last few minutes searching for what to do next. You might consider a depth vs. breadth approach – going deep into one topic across multiple sessions. If you’re new to a lot of the ideas at the conference, consider dipping your toe into lots of news ideas as an alternative and save going deep for next year.

The best way to learn is to write about your learning. Have a couple blog ideas in mind and connect with people that will add expert opinions to your posts.

#3. Team Work

Heading to the conference with your team? Divide and conquer the sessions available to really make the most of the event. Team members should go to different tracks or sessions and share their learning post event. When the Getting Smart team is at conferences, you’ll almost never catch us in the same session, we find it more beneficial to learn from each other and maximize the number of sessions attended. Also, before you leave decide the learning outcomes you have as a team and as individuals, then make sure you debrief daily to share progress and updates.

Flying solo this trip? Share your learning outcomes, goals and plans with your team before you go so that you’re accountable when you get back to the class or office. Plan to share your learning at the next staff meeting. Chances are you’ll be eager to share your learning anyway!

#4. Know Your Audience

Just like you know what sessions you want to go to, know which people you want to meet! Know the audience at the event you’re going to so that you can prepare your “elevator speech.” Much like using names, knowing what thought leaders you may meet while you’re traveling will help prepare you to have the most productive conversations.

#5. Wear a Name Badge

We all feel silly wearing those laminated badges with the bright lanyard, but there are benefits. Conference staff and attendees will recognize your name from past events, Twitter, blogs you’ve writen etc. Growing your professional learning network and brand starts with being known so wear that badge throughout the conference. Don’t forget to write your Twitter handle on your badge if it isn’t there already. Your badge can also couple as a business card holder when you’re meeting new people and need a place to store their cards!

#6. Be Curious and Step Out of Your Comfort Zone

Great conversations can happen with complete strangers at events, not just the people you’ve planned to “run into”. Be brave and engage during sessions. Ask questions or make connections to work others are doing. Don’t be afraid to ask for the opinions of your peers and experts you come across. Have a persistent challenge in your classroom or organization that needs some fresh perspective? Start a notes page on your phone or in your notebook and do an informal survey of all the folks you meet. You may walk away from the conference with the solution to a problem that’s been nagging you for awhile!

Don’t eat lunch alone or spend too much time solo. Take advantage of the numerous parties and social events conference committees often plan. See someone eating alone or that you’ve seen in a few sessions earlier in the day? Sit down and strike up a conversation. Valuable conversations that lead to great connections can happen as long as you’re curious!

#7. Use Names

Names are a huge part of our personal identity and most of us agree that we feel more valued when someone remembers and uses our name. Remembering names also makes it even easier to start a conversation in the future. You’re less likely to approach someone if you don’t remember their name which could mean missing potential business opportunities and relationships. Forget someone’s name you’ve already met? Be honest! Don’t be afraid to ask for someone’s name for a second time, people will respect that you’re making an effort to get to know who they are.

#8. Mark Your Cards

You’re going to meet a LOT of people, even if you’re just at a small meeting. Another Getting Smart conference tip is to bring a sharpie to jot down follow-up notes on the cards of people you meet. You might write the initials of your colleague on the card of the person you want to be sure to introduce them to by email back at your school or office, or you might jot down what report you promised to send them that directly addresses the issue they’re struggling with at their school. Marking up business cards will help you remember who people are, what you talked about, next steps etc. This will help make post event follow up easier and more meaningful for you and your contacts.

#9. Share Your Learning

Use platforms such as Twitter, your blog or other social networks to share what you’re learning with those still at home. This is a great opportunity to expand your thought leadership, grow followers/readership and continue your learning even after the event. Did the last session you went to spark an idea? Write about it! Did you meet a bunch of interesting people? Share them with your network of followers.

#10. Start Relationships

Look at each event as an opportunity to build new relationships. Think through how you’ll build these relationships in a way that creates the most value from the event long after it’s over. Don’t just view travel opportunities as a time to meet new people, but as a chance to create new opportunities for you and your team! Before, during and after attendance, using social media as a networking tool. Most conferences have really active twitter feeds and hashtags, use those to start and continue relationships!

#11. Follow Up

Personalized thank you’s can go a long way with people you’ve connected with. A quick follow up email thanking them for their time and impact will let them know you appreciate them and help them remember your connection. This can also help keep your conversation going long after the conference hustle and bustle has died down. Don’t have their email address? That’s ok, shoot them a direct message on Twitter instead!

#12. Fill Out the Conference Survey

Our team has been on both sides of the conference experience–as hosts and as participants–and the post-conference surveys matter. Take the time when you get back home to identify what the best and worst parts of your conference experience were and be open about that with the organizers. The organizers often can’t view the event with the same “lens” as a participant, so share your valuable perspective! In the end, you’re helping more than just the conference organizers. You’re making a common good contribution to improving the next year’s event for yourself and anyone else who will attend.

We hope these tips impact your learning and networking at your next event. By practicing one or all of these you will return home feeling recharged and inspired by what you learn and who you meet. Have any tips you’d add? Leave them in the comments below!

For more on conferences, check out:

Jessica Slusser

Jessica is the Senior Director of Impact at Getting Smart. She leads business development and growth of advocacy campaigns, advisory services, product development, marketing, and Getting Smart's blog. As part of her role, Jessica also oversees team events, conferences, and speaking engagements.

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iBooks Author Conference (@iBAConference)

Jessica - great article! Seeking ROI and approaching the investment with a team mindset are really important. Nice write-up.

The iBooks Author Conference (www.iBooksAuthorConference.com) has those things in mind as people come together (Oct 8-9 in Nashville) from around the world to talk about creating interactive, multimedia books with iBooks Author. Some of these exact principles have guided how we've set our event up from the beginning.

Thanks again.


Conferences can make a huge impact on your sales and gaining new customers but like this article states, showing up is no longer enough. Networking and socializing are key. People who come to conferences want to be approached, but in the right way. Great post!

Jessica Slusser

Books Author Conference and Roz, thank you for reading and joining the conversation!

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