Sunday, September 2, 2018

Getting the Most Out of a Conference

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on......................."

Note:  Another surgery next week, so I will be taking a little time off to recover.  Back soon.

I ran across this article  in Forbes on "Getting the Most Out of Conferences and Events".  The chief advice is to focus on what you want out of your attendance and then to plan.

There is no shortage of conferences in the nonprofit arts.  Every discipline, every field of interest in the sector, every national service provider offers one.  You could easily go to a score of more conferences each year if you so desired.  And conferences run all year now.  Senior leaders will usually attend one in their dominant field of interest. Unfortunately, because of budget constraints and the costs of attending these conferences, most organizations can only afford to send their chief executives (if they can afford to send anyone at all).  Rarely do the more rank and file staffers get the opportunity, and that's unfortunate because it is these junior leaders who, arguably, stand to gain the most.

(While most conference organizers provide for early-bird reduced registration, I would like to see these organizers provide for reduced registration fees for attendees employed in the field for less than say, three years, as a way to perhaps encourage more newer staffers to attend.  And maybe funders could provide more scholarship support for travel and lodging)

Conference attendance then is an important investment for those who do attend.  How then do you go about designing an approach to attendance for getting the most from the experience?

The answer to that question depends on the time you have spent in the field.  For all levels of administrators, there are two primary things to be gained from attendance: 1) Learning from the content of the sessions and from your peers, and 2) Networking: Meeting new people and rekindling long standing relationships.   It is the latter that takes precedence the longer you are in the field.

I break it down into three broad categories:

1.  The Initiates:  For those relatively new to the field.
For all conference attendees, learning is the primary objective. But not just about job and job skills, but also about the sector as an industry - about the people and organizations who are the leaders and the players, and about how the sector works. Newer people need to see themselves as a sponge at their first conferences - soak up as much as you possibly can.  The real purpose of these conferences though, is networking. Your goal should be to meet as many people in positions that relate to your job as possible - similarly situated staffers at related organizations, funders, researchers, etc.  And secondarily, to learn as much as you can about doing your job - the content of the sessions.

Do two things before you get there.  1)  Scan the session descriptions and decide which ones you want to attend.  Zero in on sessions that have some bearing on what you do, but include a couple which promise bigger picture content so you gain perspective, especially if they are being led by people you want to meet (and introduce yourself before or after the session).  2) Most conferences make available to attendees a participant list as the date nears.  Go over that list and note people you would like to meet and then make an effort to meet those people, at least to introduce yourself.  It's a good idea to have business cards to hand out (and you should collect them from those you meet). Don't worry if you aren't able to meet everyone on your list.  I've been to large conferences where I intended to get together with people I've already known for a long time, and yet, over several days, never managed to cross paths with them.   Most conferences' plenary sessions at the opening of each day, and at lunch sessions, are open seating, and thus great opportunities to meet people -- and if you can place yourself next to someone you want to meet and converse with, you will have an opportunity for a virtual one on one conversation.  For that reason, I never sit at just any table, nor am I the first one to seat myself.  I wait until the tables begin to fill, quickly identify a table occupied by people I might want to talk to and those I might want to get to know.  Even if your seat mates are serendipitously determined, that's ok, because often times you end up meeting someone who will make an excellent contact.   Note too that keynote speakers are often inspiring and motivating, but few keynotes will offer you much practical advice that you can use, and thus the before, and during conversations with those at your table may be more valuable to you in the long run.

Networking and meeting new contacts is arguably the single most important thing you can do at these conferences; even more important than taking lessons from the content of the sessions you will attend.  Despite the fact that there is an overabundance of information to master and content to absorb in our industry, we, like most businesses, are really about people and relationships.  It's from people whom you will really learn your job and craft; it's people who will really help you with your career trajectory; it's people who will help you to brainstorm and inspire you to come up with new ideas.

In addition to plenary session seat-mate opportunities, there are several other situations that lend themselves to meeting people.  1)  Arrive early to sessions and work the room.  Introduce yourself to others (including the presenters and / or panelists) while waiting for the session to start and engage in conversations about the topic or whatever is on your mind.  2)  The break periods between sessions are perfect opportunities to seek out people you want to meet and introduce yourself.  And finally 3) Dinners and events are tailor made for networking.  Most of the nonprofit arts dinners (and there is usually only one) are buffets and you can wander the room to meet new folks.  And if the meal is attached to an arts organizations (often museum or gallery or performing arts venue), you have ample time to simply wander around and see what happens.  Most conferences also have at least one dine-around where they put up lists for people to sign to be included in a dinner at a certain restaurant.  It might be a table of complete strangers, and it might turn out fabulous.   If you only dine with people you already know, you're wasting an opportunity to get to know new people.

Note on shyness.  I know, for many people, the idea of going up to someone and introducing yourself - particularly if that person is a known leader with status and reputation - can be daunting.  And I know some people actually have to force themselves, uncomfortably, to do that.  All I can tell you is that 95% of the time, those you introduce yourself to, will be open, gracious and welcoming.  We've all been new to the field, and most of us have, at times, felt awkward.  My advice:  try.  You might be surprised.  (And for the 5% who are stand-offish, well you're not missing much).

2).  For the mid-career administrators:  Those in the field for a few years.
The advice is essentially the same, but for these attendees you will already know many of your contemporary peers in the field.  This is an opportunity to bond and cement relationships, to add new contacts, and to both hear and put forth new ideas and concepts and to learn from those peers.  It's a time to find out from the field what is going on, what's working and not, what the issues are and where opportunities lie, as well as to brainstorm. This is preparation work for the next steps as these folks move closer towards being the next leaders of the field.  If you know who will be there and who you want to see, you might contact some of those people before the conference and arrange a dinner or other time to meet.  I use to do that at key conferences like AFTA and GIA by trying to set up dinners with six or eight people before hand.  Some of those dinners were the best part of the whole conference - for me anyway.  Try it.

3).  The EDs and CEO's:  The establishment. 
As previously noted, unfortunately, because of limitations, this is usually the largest group at the conference.  Some are newbies in their current position, but not to the field, some in mid career and some nearing the end of their tenures.  For the newbies and mid-career leaders, this is about career trajectory - putting yourself out there, identifying future opportunities and assessing those opportunities might mean for you.  For all of these leaders, the other goals are essentially the same:  Meeting with new and established contacts to share information and experiences, and to learn what is going on around the country.  For these individuals, the content at the sessions is usually an opportunity for refining their knowledge base, and hopefully stimulating a few new thoughts and ideas to share.   The longer one has been in the field, the more this is about old friends and catching up.  That is important because it helps one to reaffirm the plusses of being in the field in the first place. It's about renewal and revival.

Whatever you do in terms of networking, don't just hang out exclusively with people you already know well.  That's squandering opportunities you paid for.  Meet at least a few new people. And for those people you meet and have a connection - or want to - follow up with an email, or, a call. Begin to establish a relationship, no matter how embryonic.  One final piece of advice:  there is a lot of talking that goes on at conferences.  Learn to listen and listen well.  And please, if there are recommended reading materials and / or research available before the conference for a session you might want to attend, don't put that off until you are on the plane.  Do your homework, if there is any, beforehand.  If you give yourself more time to think about the subject, you'll get more out of the presentation, and you'll be able to formulate good questions to raise.  Relax on the plane.

Attendance at conferences can be of enormous value to improving your knowledge base and skills levels, to your awareness of issues, to your ability to do the job better, to understanding the sector and how it works, and to meeting the wide variety of leaders within the field.  It can be good for your job performance, and for your career.  For all of those reasons, it is essential to maximize the precious limited time available at these events by doing some pre-planning - as to the sessions you want to attend and the people you want to see and meet.  Of course, you have to be open to things just happening, and often they will, and you will sometimes be pleasantly surprised by serendipitous  events.  But you also have to plan, and execute your plan, to maximize the benefit of your attendance. Networking is both a casual event and pointed work.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit