The art of conference going

Executive directors can spend a not trivial amount of money and time going to conferences.  How do you get the best return on investment?

The second half of my report from the recently concluded Social Enterprise Alliance conference looks at this often neglected skill for young social entrepreneurs.

Conference going is like balancing your checkbook. You’re expected to already know how to do it and you feel stupid asking for instruction from others. And if you don’t learn how to do it, you risk making mistakes and losing money.
During the recent Social Enterprise Alliance conference, it struck me that there are a lot of young social entrepreneurs who have never been taught the art of conference going. They generally seemed to be more in “hang out” mode, checking the booths out, listening to presenters, talking to the people that sat at their lunch tables. There was a passive spirit to it all.
In contrast, the older crowd was generally much more proactive. At the lobbies of conferences like this one, one sees this crowd seeking each other out. At meal times, they were clustered together talking in a very serious manner. Most of them now occupy senior management positions and this is a natural occasion to discuss some business with each other.
In other words, the younger crowd was experiencing the conference as is, versus creating their conference experience, which is what the veterans were doing. The art of proactively creating your experience is an important one. There are a lot of conferences, some of them are truly important gathering points for your field, and they cost a lot in terms of money and time. So making the most of them is an important aspect of efficient resource allocation for a budding social entrepreneur. 
Given that reality, I thought it would be helpful to give readers some basic principles on the art of conference going.
1. Know why you’re there
The first thing to realize is that you are not there primarily for the main content of the conference. Personally, I think all conferences should dispense with plenary sessions and even most seminars, and should be organized like the Opportunity Collaboration. What this conference recognizes is that the real value about conferences is the opportunity to make new connections.
You should realize that in this day and age, there are so many more efficient ways to increase intellectual capital: downloaded pdfs, live webinars, Flash based courses, and more. What those mediums lack is the ability to increase social capital. And social capital – who you know and their willingness to help you – is a far greater determinant of your success than almost any other form of capital (including financial capital).
So get this clear: you should be going to a conference to build your social capital first and foremost. Everything else is secondary.
2. Know who else is there
It follows from the first principle that the most important document about the conference is the attendee list. Any conference worth its fee should make that available beforehand. 
Scan this list for the following:
  • Are there parties doing something close to what you’re trying to do? 
  • Are there parties further along in doing what you’re doing?
  • Are there thought leaders in your general field?
  • Are there experts on some general activity (i.e. marketing, social media, policy, etc.) that may be important to you now… or down the road?
  • Are there organizations represented that impact your field?
  • Are there interesting smart people (who may not even be in your field) who could help sharpen your thinking?
Once you’ve identified these people, spend a bit of time researching them on the web. You may discover aspects that either raise or lower them in your priorities. It will also sharpen what you want to ask them or tell them. And if and when you do meet them, they will be impressed that you’ve done the research.
3. Figure out the strategy
In large conferences, you can’t expect to just run into people (especially people who might be sought after by others). You need a plan, and you need to be aggressive. Here are three strategies to consider:
Email the person ahead of time and ask for an appointment. This is the most effective – assuming the person is willing to reply. If the person doesn’t, you’ve at least laid the groundwork that if you do run into him, he may feel so guilty that he will make the time to talk with you.
Ask for an introduction. Chances are you already know some veterans in the field who are going to the conference. If there is a person X you especially want to meet, ask the vets if they know person X and would be willing to make an introduction. People generally are willing to help in this way. If you don’t know any such veteran connectors, go ahead and contact the conference organizer. A decent conference organizer generally understands that she is in the customer service business and may be willing to help.
Attend the workshop. If the person is giving a workshop, go early and introduce yourself. Sit in the workshop, look very attentive, and ask good questions. Then stay afterwards and ask some more good questions. At the end, inquire if you could follow up on something or the other. Decent workshop presenters know that they are there to be helpful so they generally will be very receptive.
Post conference email. If all of the above failed to make a connection, go ahead and email the person afterwards with something like “I was hoping to meet you at the conference and wasn’t able to. Would you be willing to take a brief 15 minute informational interview with me?” You’ll get varying reactions to this one, depending on how busy and generous the person is. But it’s worth a shot – you have nothing to lose.
Some final reminders that are obvious, but based on what I saw at the recent conference, still bear repeating.
  • Dress professionally
  • Carry your business cards at all time
  • Have your elevator pitch down cold
  • Introduce yourself to the person next to you at all times. 
  • Be persistent
If you have other tips and tricks for the art of conference going, please share them here. It’s an important skill for us all!

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