7 tips to get the most out of a learning conference

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Arial view of a conference hall

From medical professionals, engineers and scientists to tradespeople, business owners and professionals, millions of people attend the thousands of conferences, trade shows, meetups and exhibitions that are held across the world each year. A recent report from Business Visits & Event Partnerships (BVEP) suggests that the conferences and exhibitions industry in the UK alone is worth £30bn.

As a learning resource, what sets conferences apart from the books, online journals and trade literature is the dedication of an individual’s time combined with the experience of meeting new peers. It’s something that can’t be easily replicated, no matter how clear the audio might be on your webinar. 

London’s annual Learning Technologies Conference is a perfect example of an event that brings together the learning industry leaders to share best practice. Attending gives you access to hundreds of learning and development seminars and more than 70 speakers from across the world, as well as a chance to check out the latest technologies and future innovation trends.

Attending a conference is a significant investment in time and resources, so how can you make sure you’re getting the most out of your commitment? Here are our seven tips to get the most learning out of a conference.

1. Should you even attend in the first place?

It might sound silly, but the first and perhaps most important step is to ask yourself if you actually need to attend the event at all. Conferences can take up days if not a week of your time and as well as the mind numbing travelling you may have to do, can also have a hefty financial cost. So should you commit to the outlay?

If you can’t list three solid reasons or goals for an event, then you probably shouldn’t go at all. There are some people that treat events as just a chance for a trip away, but whilst they might be enjoyable, the primary goal of a conference should always be to learn and to grow your network.

Other factors to consider: Are you going to get something at the conference that you cannot get anywhere else? Do they have a speaker or an opportunity that will provide you with something you can’t pick up in an online resource or webinar?

Sometimes you can get just as much knowledge from an event by feeding off the Twitter updates of people already there and following the websites and video channels they advocate from the conference. Something to seriously consider, especially if the event is likely to eat up a lot of your resources.

2. Know what you want going in and plan ahead

So you’ve decided on an event that’s going to give you a learning experience you just can’t get anywhere else. The next step to getting the most out of a conference is to plan ahead.

From intimate trade shows that house a few hundred people, to sprawling international conferences that cater to thousands, exhibitions vary in size and so each will require their own planning.

Attending a conference means that you or your organisation has set aside time and resources to focus on a specific subject or task, therefore it’s important you consciously decide what it is you want to achieve from the outset. Are you looking for the latest knowledge from renowned experts? Or perhaps you are more interested in making connections and networking with potential supply chains? Having a clear understanding of what it is you want will help you plan your trip more efficiently.

Some conferences can be a maze of talks, workshops and seminars, so spend some time sketching out a rough timetable for yourself so that you can work out what activities are your priority. Be sure to plan a first and second preference, including what others you might like to do if the first options don’t pan out, as you may find some are too full or simply don’t turn out to be as relevant as you imagined. This will also help you when it comes to booking events early that might have limited numbers – while others are looking at what’s on offer, you’ll be signing up.

Have your mobile phone and a stash of business cards easily to hand and know your 30-second pitch. It doesn’t matter if you are a medical professional updating your knowledge or a business owner seeking customers, being able to say who you are and why you are there is really important. You’ll be introducing yourself to a lot of new people and the connections you make at symbiotic gatherings such as conferences can lead to unexpected and exciting outcomes.

3. Stay info savvy

The main reason people attend conferences is to learn. Just like any talk, lecture or seminar it’s important to take notes, so be sure to take a good notepad and a pen, after all, the faintest ink is better than the best memory.

Another option is to use your phone and keep everything digital. You can take snaps of the slides in talks to write up later or supplement your notes with pictures of talking points. You can also use the images as memory joggers of different exhibitors that perhaps you weren’t able to meet or wanted to check out later but ran out of time. It’s also important to add people you meet immediately to your contacts or LinkedIn, as with so much going on you are likely to forget their details later.

4. Keep your energy up

To get the most out of a conference you need to be able to concentrate and pay attention, which can be easier said than done when some events last over 12 hours. In what can sometimes feel like a test of stamina, it’s important to keep your energy up so that you can pace yourself across the event. Be sure to keep hydrated and well-fed, always being sure to eat before going into a conference if possible. Conference food is notorious for being very hit or miss, and when you’ve committed so much time and resources to attend, you don’t want to be leaving the grounds to grab a meal and missing out on valuable networking opportunities.

Be sure to keep a water bottle and some energy snacks in your bag which can help keep you going if you begin to flag. It’s also worth keeping your eyes open for free drinks and snacks from exhibitors as they can be a nice way to save some cash on additional snacks later if things run over.

5. Beware the clutter!

Speaking of freebies it’s important to be ruthless about shedding free literature and useless items. It might seem like a good idea at the time, but apart from having to carry them around for the rest of the conference, they will most likely just gather dust at home or in your office until you have your next clear out. After all, do you really need a flimsy linen bag or a squishy stress ball with some company’s name on it?

6. Be open

So you’ve made your plans and you’ve scheduled in the items you want to visit. What now? Well, one of the biggest benefits of a conference is that you are amongst people with shared interests. So be sure to take some time to walk the floor, taking in the surroundings, exhibitors and other attendees. There’s a buzz that comes with knowing you are amongst people who understand what you do and you are certain to learn new things that could change your view or understanding of your business or profession.

As well as the content of talks and presentations, be sure to keep the bigger picture in mind, such as how the talk is delivered, what software the speaker is using to present and how they’re presenting it. These speakers are highly experienced and how they deliver the information can be as much of a masterclass as the content itself.

It might be tempting to hit the bars and afterparties following a long conference. Whilst it can be valuable to build relationships when people are in a more social environment, there is a tendency for people from the same company or group to stick together and sometimes this can be counter-productive.

7. Write it up

Be sure to write up your notes and thoughts when you get home, and share them with your team.

Writing up your notes will help you clarify your thoughts and cement new learning. It can also help remind you of ideas you want to pursue, or new contacts you want to chase up. Writing up notes gets you unpacking the (hopefully) huge amount of information you’ve gained and will help you to turn it into actionable and informative content. This will also make it easier to share with colleagues or perhaps form the basis of your next blog, article or LinkedIn post.

At Insitu Digital we empower workforces with effective digital learning. We use storytelling to turn complex information into relatable and understandable learning programs, and we’ve been doing it for some of the world’s largest organisations. You can take a look at our case studies to find out more – https://www.insitu.digital/case-studies/