One part of my job I really enjoy is attending professional conferences. As an engineer, this might make me somewhat unique. I am no longer surprised at the value of thoughts and ideas I get from even unlikely conference presentations.
One fact of business: it is really expensive to have staff travel to conferences. Yet, I have regularly seen professionals at conferences who seem to have little desire to be there. Checking Facebook during conference sessions, smoking alone during networking hours, typing away on a laptop during meals are pretty clear indicators that you have more important things to do. Companies send people to conferences because they know there are untapped gold mines, and these events are often the best way to find them.
Last week I got to represent McKinstry at the US Green Building Council Wyoming Chapter conference in Jackson, Wyoming. A quick account of the costs:
- Airfare (rt): $460
- Shuttle to/from airport in Seattle: $80
- Meals & drinks with peers: $80
- Presentation prep time: 16hrs @ $75/hr (wholesale cost rate) = $1200
- Travel time: 12hrs @ $40 = $480 (I use a blended rate cost, because unlike McKinstry, most firms I have worked for will require you travel on your own time, rather than company time- primarily because it is cheaper for the company)
- Participation time: 16 hrs @ $75, $1200
- Shuttle to/from airport (in Jackson): $160
You could re-do the math using my “opportunity cost” hourly rate of $125/hr (assuming I would spend all of the available working hours on full rate consulting projects), add the cost of actually attending (giving a presentation waived my registration fee), the cost of the hotel (again, included for fee as a speaker), and the cost of a few more meals (because I travel cheap and had friends to see), then the total cost balloons to $7,135.
If you don’t want to be there, then don’t attend. It’s too damn expensive.
That said, conferences can be intimidating and confusing for many people. Most of the advice I have gotten, and other blog fodder has either been inauthentic or too general. I’ve been told I do a good job of “working the room” at events- generating interest and finding opportunities. This is not purely a natural talent, nor in-authentic. Below are some specific actions to make getting value out of conferences a little easier.
Think of a question that you would like to find an answer to at the event. The best questions start with “how” or “what”- they are open ended to spur conversation. In Wyoming, one great question was “how do you retrofit an existing McMansion into something a millennial actually wants to buy?”
Stay mobile. You want to walk around the room(s) and meet new people. Don’t leave your laptop at a singular seat all day, or otherwise “lock” yourself into a location. Being around new people will inspire new conversations.
Exercise escaping dead end conversations. There are a few standard ways I make a clean break from a conversation that isn’t going anywhere. “I’d like to grab a coffee before the next session”, or “I need to move up so I can see more clearly” have worked well for me. If at all possible, do not use your phone as an excuse to break away.
Listen carefully to questions that other people ask- consider how you would answer each question (if you could at all). They can be great conversation starters after the session, and take some of the awkwardness out of starting a conversation with someone new. Protip- people that ask good questions are most often the people you want to make contact with.
Do not make up numbers in order to sound smart or retain your authority. Most smart people can tell, and you’ll lose your credibility immediately. Being vulnerable enough to admit your knowledge gap is attractive, and it gives you a great reason to ask for someone’s card and follow up with them.
Do not bother making relationships with people that you really do not enjoy interacting with. You will only do really valuable work with people that you trust. You will never build enough report with people you don’t like to get to the point that you trust them.
Even if you feel the focus of the event is outside of your scope, realize that the organizers are probably people that you want to have relationships with.
Talk to your competitors. Get to know the people that also do exactly what you do. They may compete with you sometimes, but chance are you can learn from them, and you never know when they may be able to help you…
Follow-up is king. If you follow-up on your conference contacts with something of value, you’ll instantly stand out amongst your peers. At the very least, connect on LinkedIn, but add a note to remind someone where you met them. I usually write one interesting fact, question, or follow-up task from the conversation on each business card I receive.
Don’t get on the plane home until you’ve written down 5 things you learned or are thinking about because you went to the conference.
Conferences are great professional practice in telling your story and sharing why you care about what you do (if you really don’t care about what you do, that’s a different issue). Write down a few different ways to introduce yourself and practice them through the day.
Notice and take notes on the references and examples that people cite- they’ve often done a lot of research for you. One example I noticed: the much regarded NREL net zero energy research lab is the least energy efficient shape possible (from a heat loss standpoint):
Arrive alert and stay engaged. Don’t work on regular work during conference sessions. Be present. Ask questions. Stay away from your phone or social media. Enthusiasm is infectious- share it freely.
If you ever have the chance to be the closer (last presenter) at a conference, make sure that you cite and highlight what you learned in your closing presentation from the previous presenters that you watched. It’s classy, shows humility, helps other people relate to you, and does a great job of actually closing the conference!
I attended many conferences during my 27 years as an air pollution consultant, and gave many papers, workshops, and courses. Your summary of how to maximize the value of attendance at a conference is the best I have ever seen. Great job, Skander.