Check Out: Conferences with Intent

In Check This Out, Musings, SApro by Shelley Story

Attending conferences as an SApro can be a double-edged sword. You’re excited to get a few days away from campus, to see old friends and former colleagues, and feel rejuvenated or be re-inspired for your work. But you’re also hustling even more than usual to make sure things run smoothly in your absence. When you return home, fresh inspiration can quickly fade at the sight of your flooded inbox and booked calendar.

And then there’s the conference itself. Especially at national conferences, just navigating the venue and schedule can be exhausting. How do you choose one session to attend in a time slot where dozens are offered? Do you choose the featured speaker who has high credibility? Take a chance on the volunteer presenter who’s unknown but whose topic is right up your alley? Or meet a friend for coffee because you’ll benefit most from sharing stories and strategies?

There’s no right answer, no perfect conference experience. But you can make sure that you get the most bang for your (or your employer’s) conference buck by being aware of the variety of opportunities for learning, and by engaging in them with intention.

Think of the conference as an immersion experience in which a place and culture are created for a brief few days, and you have the chance to learn from every interaction, environment, and experience. Some first steps:

Spend some time with the schedule.

An investment of an hour or two before the conference begins can really maximize your learning potential. Choose sessions offered by a diverse selection of presenters, at various stages of their careers and working in various functional areas. Be open to presentations that are outside your direct interests or experience; you never know when a good idea in someone else’s department could translate into a new program or service in yours. Ask yourself what you’re hoping to accomplish, create a plan for your days, and then be willing to let that plan change as you go.

Get social.

If conferences are immersion in a temporary culture, then some of the most potent learning opportunities can come from:

Social interaction.

– Make connections, ask questions, share your experiences. See old friends, but make new ones, too. Reach out to presenters, organizers, attendees (more AND less experienced than you). Volunteer.

– If you put your foot in your mouth, own it, apologize, and make amends if appropriate.

– Capitalize on chances for social interaction, but make space for quality down-time. If you need a break, take it. If you take a break, take a real one. Find some quiet, sit with your thoughts, take a brisk walk or a power nap. Break the habit of filling every gap in your day with social media, shop talk, or email. (P.S. you might want to try this in your real life, too.)

Social observation. Conference attendees include “celebrity” speakers, high-ranking executive types, sponsors and vendors, students, and everyone in between. Just as you would in a new country, do some people-watching. Who interacts with whom, how do crowds ebb and flow, what does the negative space tell you? There’s a world of lessons in stepping back enough to see from outside the circle.

And, yes, social media. Like any tool, it can be used well or… questionably. At most conferences, there’s a wealth of information and context available in the hashtags, and you can access it whether you choose to dive in to the conversation or not.

Learn from this conference to get more from the next.

We teach that reflective observation is key to increasing learning, but how often do we take our own advice? When you get home, and while the conference is still fresh in your mind, do an accounting of what went well and what could have gone better. In which situations did you learn something tangible that you could take back to your department or school? What did you learn about yourself that will inform your future decisions? When did you feel like you were getting the most out of the experience? When did you feel too overwhelmed or exhausted to take full advantage? Make some notes about your experience, and consult them when you’re planning to attend the next conference.

Whatever your professional history or current position, conference attendance can be a great time to break from your social and intellectual habits and discover something new. Embrace all the modes of learning available to you, and enjoy!

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