Five steps to attending a conference

Have you ever eaten too much pizza? At first, the pizza tastes so good. Every bite is delicious. And there's so much pizza it's exciting! You keep eating. Slowly, you start feeling all that pizza but it still tastes so good that you keep eating. By the end of it, your belly is so full you can't stand to look at another pizza for weeks. All you want to do is take a nap.

That's a lot like how most people attend a conference.

I'm heading off to the American Society for Training and Development's annual conference next week. A number of of colleagues are attending the Society or Human Resources conference in June and there are many other outstanding conferences at this time of year. Here's how you can make attending pay off.

Step 1: Set goals
Why are you planning on attending this conference. What knowledge, ideas, or products do you expect to bring back to the workplace after the conference? Set clear goals and the conference will suddenly become less overwhelming. It will also become easier to sell to your boss.

Step 2: Plan ahead
A conference can sometimes feel like Disneyland - there's just too much to do! Scan the conference program ahead of time to identify your 'must-see' opportunities. Is there a key speaker you want to meet? Is there a hot new product you want to check out in the exhibit hall? Is a famous author delivering a keynote that you absolutely must be in the front row for? You'll have a better chance of doing all you really want to do if you make a plan before arriving at the conference.

For many of us, planning ahead also means setting up meetings with key clients, vendors, and colleagues. Don't expect to just 'run into' important people. Remember, your contacts are likely to be overwhelmed too. Plan out your important lunches, coffees, meetings, and dinners before you arrive so it is all locked in on your calendar.

Step 3: You can't do it all
Keep this in mind: Too Much Information! There's too much to do and see at a conference and the reality is you will only benefit from a small portion. Don't try to go to every session you planned to attend, especially if something better comes up. In step one, you set goals then you created a plan in step two. Your goals are more important than your plan so follow them!

Step 4: Keep your eyes open
Every conference has a few unpredictable moments. You can capitalize on those moments if you follow your goals and allow your plan to be a guide and not a mandate. A chance meeting with a key client, an unexpected learning opportunity, or a private chat with a big name in your industry are all worth more than making sure you check off that next session on your list.

Step 5: Have an implementation process
I make a list of all my take-aways immediately after attending a conference. Even if I'm very tired, I find this is an essential activity. Then I give myself 30 days to do something with each item on the list or I toss it.

Make sure you have some sort of plan to put what you gained into action. Otherwise, you'll be like the kid who ate too much pizza. You'll be so conferenced out you won't want to touch any of it. All you'll have to show for your attendance will be a stack of business cards, pages of notes, and some well-worn shoes.