I’m about to leave for another work conference, such is my life and for the many involved with helping their companies grow. My career started as a normal cubical monkey, but I was proactive in my approaches to improve, and was able to find a mentor fairly early on the ladder climbing adventure I am on today. Because of that, I began going to local, state, and national conferences in my mid-20’s, first as a standard attendee and later as a regular speaker. I’ve probably given maybe a dozen or so talks over the years, and attended twice that many tradeshow/conferences, but I’m nothing really special. For those looking to try and get out of the office and be more in their career, I think conferences are a great opportunity for growth and give you a chance to travel and see cool shit. Through this avenue, I’ve had private events (just for conference attendees or select sponsors, where they shut down a venue to the public) at Sea World in San Diego and the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, and gone on private tours of the Alamo and Harley Davidson among others. It is fun and rewarding to learn new things, meet new people, see new places, and gain additional traction in your industry and maybe even push you up higher on the career trajectory.
Here are some Life Pro Tips on Conferences:
- If you want to convince your company to attend a conference, find a topic you’re knowledgeable about and submit a speaking proposal. Now you may want to clear this idea with your boss, or your boss’s boss, but if you sell it as getting more exposure to your company, generating leads for your sales, and as a way to stay abreast of the ever-changing marketplace you’re in, you likely stand a solid chance of getting the opportunity to go (if accepted). The topic itself doesn’t matter, it doesn’t even have to be unique, but you do have to spin it in a way that makes it fresh. Using buzzwords like ‘hack’ or a fancy title with alliterations will help yours stand apart. Just find something and take a swing.
- Make your presentation **POP**. PowerPoint is the defacto tool for presentations, and even a well done PowerPoint still lacks pizazz. Instead, use an alternative presentation tool like Prezi, which has been my Go To platform for the last couple years. It takes a little learning (there are a number of good tutorials on Youtube) but you will definitely set yourself apart from the crowd of Death-by-Powerpoint’ers out there. My early presentations were bad. Bullets. Pictures. Read from the slide. Lately, I’m doing more TedTalk-ish approach with getting my talking points down for each slide and not having any bullets to make my way through. The ones I’ve been putting together lately might have one slide image out of 30 or 40 that has bullets. It takes more practice to pull off, but you’ll be way ahead of the gum-chewers out there and I’ve had a lot more success with people talking afterwards wondering what they just saw, getting leads, etc. The reality is even with all these things, I’m still not a very good public speaker. I lack charisma and timing, but I do have enthusiasm, know my subject material well, and try to make up for it in bad jokes thrown in there as well. Now most people are deathly afraid of public speaking, and if that is you, I get it. While not the scope of this post, if you want to get more comfortable, I strongly suggest joining a local or virtual Toastmasters group, as it helped me go from a grade D presenter to a grade B-, which is a good improvement. Even if it is barely above average, I’m much more comfortable there and you can be too.
- Work the room. Wallflowers don’t accomplish much. Whether you’re in Junior High or in the corporate world, if you’re willing to talk to people you’ll likely get some spoils of victory, and if you’re not you’ll end up lonely and frustrated. Your company is probably paying big money to have you attend this, even if you’re speaking. According to Myers-Briggs and am barely an extrovert- with nearly as many introvert points, so can at least empathize with you introverts out there. Plus, starting a conversation from scratch is hard as hell. But everyone is there to make contacts, and are hoping someone breaks the ice, so it might as well be you. The easiest intro I use is “Where are you from?” It leaves open “originally or now?” or a response of however they interpret your question, and the ball starts rolling. “Oh, we vacationed there once.” Or “I have an aunt from there.” Or “I hear West Virginians are missing a lot of teeth, is that true.” You get the idea, it is simply a springboard to growing rapport and starting a conversation. Get to know the person a little, and if there’s potential for work opportunity, get deeper, if not, think of it like speed dating and move on. Also, I like to try and get an attendees list for a conference, see who are potential targets, and work the room looking for those targets to introduce myself too. These targets could be potential customers, someone I’d like to learn from, or past/current clients or teaming partners.
- Have a pen, write info on the back business cards. When you talk to people, you’ll have a hard time remembering who is who from the 1-inch stack of cards you’ll compile through the course of the event. Have a pen handy and jot down pertinent information about the person or business. “Red hair, was interested in seeing widget demo, was originally from Arizona.” “Bald guy who said his boss would be interested in learning more, enjoyed my talk.” “Has a project that we’d be perfect for, has two kids who play soccer too.” When you follow-up with them, they’ll be impressed you remembered something personal about them, or the topic of conversation that created the lead to begin with.
- Keep it in your pants. Conferences have a lot of opportunity for after-hours fun. Open or cash bars are the norm, dinner and drinks with clients or prospects are common, and when you mix strangers decked out in dressy attire with booze you get a combustible mixture. The movie Cedar Rapids does a nice job of nailing conference craziness that happens. It can be intoxicating to be away from your spouse and getting attention from the opposite sex, and hooking up is a pretty common occurrence in my experience. Those looking to do so actually look for wedding rings knowing they won’t have awkward follow-up correspondence since they’re usually married too. My advice is to forgo the ego-boost that this can provide, and keep it in your pants if you’re married.
- Play hooky for part of a day to see the local sites. I used to think I had to go to every technical session and maximize my time by learning, learning, learning. Today, I have a more pragmatic approach in that unless the session fits into my bullseye of learning, entertainment, or connection with others, I may very well skip concurrent sessions and take some time to get to see the City I’m in. What is the sense of traveling to a different destination if you aren’t going to explore a little. Sometimes I’ll do a run or bike tour, other times it is a more formal tour at one of the key destinations of that area. Live a little. You aren’t getting graded on attending everything and your boss (probably) isn’t there checking up on you (plus, you could even talk your boss into joining you- some of mine have been bigger hooky-players than me).
- Follow up with your prospects. After you get home, take those business cards with all your notes and reach back out. I usually wait a couple days to let everyone catch up, then strike while their memory is fresh. This was likely a big point of going to one of these things, but most people do a shitty job of following back up, don’t let that be you.
- Bring the technical info back to your team. After you’ve learned new skills, new knowledge, new industry news, new STUFF, be sure to have lunch or a short informal staff meeting and pass on stuff that could benefit them.
A rising tide lifts all boats,
and you’ll end up looking like a team player.
- Bring your family along for a reduced price trip. Our family has traveled for spring break and other mini-vacations when one of us have had a conference and the flight (or mileage) for at least one person is covered along with the hotel for the trip. Many of the destinations are in warm areas of the country, so while one of you may be locked into speaking engagement or conference sessions, the other parent and kids can explore the city. Conferences also usually abut a weekend, so if you do stay (and pay for a couple extra days yourself) the other party can be part of the family fun too. This approach is something I’ve seen many times by those that partake in these events.