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11 Tips for Successfully Navigating Conferences

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Editor’s Note: In this digital world is there still a need for in-person conferences? What can you do to get the most out of them? There are many professional development opportunities offered online through various means (webinars, YouTube videos, even services like Lynda.com). Whether you’re considering a local one- to three-day conference or workshop, or you’re attending a large-scale national or international event, you’re going to need a plan of attack. Dr. Shannon White shares her perspectives on successfully navigating conferences and meetings.

Plan Your Own Agenda

I would suggest walking into a conference with your own agenda. I am not talking about the PDF program or the conference app, but rather an agenda based on what you want to accomplish. There are five things I challenge myself to do at every conference I attend, no matter the event, as you see below.

Tip 1. Meet at least three new people per day of the conference.

I am an extrovert, so typically I can meet many more than three people at a conference and have a conversation. I acknowledge the difference between fleeting cocktail-party types of conversations and deeper discussions; in most conferences there are times and places for both. For the introverts out there, this can be anxiety producing. Know that you are not the only introvert; there are others. They are standing to the side at the coffee break and not in the loud exuberant groups. Find one another and kick off the conversation with something as simple as, “I hate these sorts of situations but I really have enjoyed _____ about this conference.” Poster sessions are also a great place to start a conversation, because the poster is being presented by someone (or you) and it naturally provides the environment for striking up a conversation.

Do I exchange cards with everyone I meet? No, but I try to. Something in the conversation might be important months to years down the road. Plus, you can write on the back of most business cards the key things you want to remember about the person. This can be their expertise, an opportunity to share with others (i.e., an internship or job), maybe that they know someone in common, or that they may know the best destinations in a place you are planning a visit. It’s not always about work; it’s about personal connections. I also always write an abbreviation of where I met them (e.g., VAMLIS 2018).

Tip 2. Provide my business card to someone that I might be able to help.

This agenda item also reminds me to pack my own business cards. This may seem like an egotistical statement, but you are an expert in something that you do or know. You never know when you have solved a geospatial problem in a way that could be a fix for someone else's problem. Or maybe you know someone else with whom to connect a fellow conference goer to further their research or work, or a product vendor with whom you have had great success. Often there are students in attendance at conferences; you might have access to data they could use in their classwork or research. And while you may not have a job opening in your organization, you might be able to provide students with advice about the job search on which they are preparing to embark. There is an altruism that we often overlook at conferences. Be sure to make it a priority in your agenda.

Tip 3. Identify one topic about which I need to learn in greater depth and set a goal to attend multiple sessions on that topic.

The conference program can be overwhelming, with a variety of sessions and topics of interest. It can be freeing to step back and prioritize your conference experience with a topic or skill about which you want to learn more, rather than to try a scattershot experience of multiple topics that are all over the place, never walking away with a better understanding of any of them.

A positive outcome of this approach is if you focus your attention, then you may meet a number of people who also are focused on learning more about that same topic or skill. You can build your own personal learning community and support one another in implementing change, and in learning and failing with this new knowledge and skill. Once you have been in a couple of sessions together you have something in common to talk about. Kick up conversations about what you have seen, learned or want to do with what was just presented. This is taking Tobler's First Law of Geography and applying it to conference going activities. (Tobler's First Law of Geography states, "Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.")

Tip 4. Plan to attend one conference workshop or presentation that I know nothing about, or very little, and which may not even sound of interest.

Yes, this is a calculated risk. This is modern exploration. Instead of going out into the field and discovering a new physical path, we can push ourselves into a new frontier of knowledge. It might end up being something of no use, but I have found that even in the talks that go over my head for 45 minutes, I still learn a little something (even if it’s as simple as how to pronounce and define a technical term that I have only seen in print.) If we don’t push ourselves to learn something new, we stagnate. I don’t believe stagnation is healthy for geospatial professionals in this day and age. Take a chance and push yourself.

Tip 5. Do not overpromise to do things related to work while at a conference.

The conference is work. Yes, checking email can be done and yes, if you are needed for an emergency your workplace should know how to contact you. But, you also need to make sure that when you are engaging in learning and professionally growing for your organization at the conference, (which they have paid for), you don’t have an impending feeling of doom, wondering about the next thing someone back at work has deemed an emergency. Also, while your organization may not consider the pre- and post-conference/workshop time as “on the clock,” likely conversations will continue into dinner time and even breakfasts at conferences. You may only be paid 40 hours for a weeklong conference, but you may put in more than that in activities. And yes, plan to see at least some of the local sites and enjoy the local cuisine during some well-deserved downtime.

What do you do when there isn’t a session in which you are interested?

Tip 6. Strike up a conversation with a conference goer who is seated in the area.

You often will find commonalities with people who are skipping sessions because they too needed something else to learn. What if what you know or they know is exactly what one another needed? It then can be a learning session that is self-directed. Don’t worry about the person being on their phone — that is often the equivalent of Linus’ security blanket. Most people aren’t sitting in public doing intense work on their phone; those folks walked further and found a solitary spot so as not to be bothered.

Tip 7. Use this opportunity to visit the exhibit hall for longer conversations with exhibitors and vendors.

Usually conferences set aside time to ensure the exhibitors, who have paid more than you, have time with conference attendees. During those planned times the exhibit hall becomes busy. During sessions, there is more time for exhibitors to meet and talk in-depth with you about their product and your needs.

Tip 8. Observe the others that are milling about.

Yes, there will be the frayed conference planners and facilities staff, but if you stop and just watch and listen you might learn a few things. You will often also see, especially at smaller local, state, or regional conferences, the movers and shakers in the hallways talking shop or planning something, or even presenters putting final touches on presentations or taking a breath. In those moments you can chat with them without the pressure of a crowd after a presentation. These are moments where observation may help you learn who can introduce you to others you may want to meet. And not to sound like a stalker, but the overheard conversations can be very enlightening as to things that are in planning stages, honest reactions to changes that are being implemented, etc.

After the Conference

Tip 9. Share your experiences with colleagues and administrators.

The best way to continue to have funding available for conference attendance is to return to your organization and share what you learned. Write a quick one-page overview of what you learned and are willing to share. Send it out or post it in your intranet and let those in your organization whom have a GIS affiliation or interest (or may need to learn more about a topic) share the experience. Thank those that made it possible for you to attend, not just those in control of the money, but those who were covering your duties while you were gone.

Tip 10. Make a plan to implement one thing you learned.

Set your own timeline for implementation but don’t wait too long so as not to lose the fresh knowledge or get stuck in the day-to-day of your life. This is where you show others that the investment of time and travel was worth it to the organization.

Tip 11. Reconnect with those you met during the conference.

Some people will use evenings or schedule a time on the calendar after a conference to connect with folks via email or even connect via LinkedIn. While this seems time-consuming, a brief note to connect virtually will strengthen relationships over time. So that I don’t just toss those cards business cards into a drawer, I use this opportunity to look at the notes I made on the back of the business card and connect about a topic we discussed. I have an old-fashioned notebook with business card holders that I have built over the past 20 years (newest on top) into which I often dig deep and pull out cards of people to ask a question.

Author's Perspective

I am a conference junkie. I love meeting new people, learning new things, seeing what is new in private industry, and visiting new destinations. I have planned conferences. I have attended conferences. I have presented and keynoted at conferences. I have to acknowledge my conference bias:

  1. I am the type of person who wants to stay up with what is current and new.
  2. I love living on the bleeding cutting edge (I am a beta-tester whenever given the opportunity).
  3. I am an extrovert.
  4. I like to travel, even for short in-state jaunts.

Take these four ingredients, stir, and mix, and you have the quintessential conference goer.

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