Top 10 Tips for Getting the Most Out of a Conference

by Emilie Cleaver

I’ve been to several conferences in my professional career in different fields (mental health, social services, early childhood, personal finance). Some have been amazing and I’ve left feeling confident and inspired. Others weren’t so great. Sometimes that was because of the conference itself. Sometimes it was because I could have done more to make it a more useful experience for myself.

These are my ten tips for getting the most out of a conference so you leave with connections and opportunities!

1. Start networking beforehand.

Networking. The word everyone loves, especially us introverts like me.

Could you sense the sarcasm there?

Nevertheless, whatever your feelings may be on networking, it may be one of the most beneficial things you can do for your professional career. Ever.

The first time I attended FinCon, a conference for personal finance influencers and media, I didn’t personally know anyone else in the personal finance world. I had been a big podcast listener for awhile, so I knew OF some of my favorite podcasters who would be there (podcasts were where I heard about the conference in the first place), but I went in without having interacted with anyone in the community before. That fact alone is surprising in itself; shy, introverted me deciding to go to a conference where I didn’t know anyone. I even roomed with three other people I’d never met before. We had emailed a little back and forth beforehand, but I had no idea what to expect. I had a great time, but I learned a thing or two in the time between my first and second year. Here’s what helped:

  • I joined a mastermind with other FinConners. I’ll talk more about this later in this post, but it was THE NUMBER ONE thing that helped me succeed and kept me going after the conference ended.
  • Be active on social media where it’s relevant to your field
  • Find people and brands who are likely to attend the conference on LinkedIn and/or other social networks
  • Just connect with others in your field! Connecting locally is a great way to start. Connecting online has produced invaluable returns in terms of building relationships for me.

Knowing people who would be at the conference beforehand for my second year was a total game changer. I had people I knew I could sit with, walk and talk with, eat with, and spend time with after official conference hours. Because of my activity in the personal finance space on Twitter, I recognized and was able to start conversations with people. Twitter is the big social media platform that I use, but people connect through so many other outlets including Instagram, YouTube, Facebook groups, LinkedIn, etc. I even had people who recognized me from social media and came up to me to talk with no reservations. Interacting beforehand, even online, can break the ice and lead to deeper conversation in person.

I’ve also gotten tons of value from connecting with others locally in my field. For example, because I was involved in county-wide work and did outreach, programming, and networking even beyond just the county where I worked when I was working in early childhood mental health, I often ran into many people I knew at local professional conferences in that field. Doing this allows you to be a resource to them. Reciprocally, they can be a resource available to you for collaboration, referral, and other professional purposes.

2. Create specific goals beforehand.

The relationships you build at industry conferences can lead to collaborations on projects, business partnerships, affiliate partnerships, advice and support, mentoring, and so many other positive things that come along with real human connection. It can be overwhelming to think of all the possibilities, let alone all the content that will be covered at the conference. To counter this, come up with a list of 3-5 specific goals you’d like to work on at the conference before you go.

Some examples of specific goals include:

  •  Learn how to manage my business finances with a particular type of software
  • Make five contacts that will turn into paid partnerships
  • Connect with one app developer

Your goals will be specific to the type of conference you are attending and your personal reasons for attending. Maybe you want to meet three people in your industry that you can collaborate on projects with. Maybe you want to learn a specific skill or learn the steps to becoming certified in something. Whatever it may be, create a list beforehand of things you’d like to achieve at the conference. This will make your time there more intentional, purposeful, and meaningful.

3. Stay at the conference hotel.

Staying at the conference hotel can truly change your experience. You will have sooooo many opportunities to continue networking and making connections after official conference hours. This time can be used to strengthen business relationships and even friendships! You may bump elbows with an important speaker in the elevators. Maybe you run into friends or colleagues you met earlier in the day as you’re walking to your hotel room. Staying at the conference hotel also gives you a convenient location to hide away if you need a nap or need a break from people-ing for a while, because you can just go to your room.

I’ve been able to stay at the conference hotel for most that I’ve attended and this has been invaluable. Even with three roommates once, I was able to find time by myself in the room as needed. I was able to easily change clothes or freshen up if I wanted to. I didn’t have to wake up earlier to commute or walk to the hotel, and I didn’t have to carry a backpack with things I needed for the whole day.

Comparing that with the one time I stayed a few blocks away in a rental (a fabulous and lower cost option), the convenience factor of staying at the hotel is huge. While at the rental, I had to wake up earlier to make sure I had time to walk to the hotel. In the humidity and in the Orlando heat during the summer. For a mile. Yeah, good times. I also found myself walking a mile back to my Airbnb late at night a few times (and once in the rain). This was the last thing I wanted to do after a long day when I just needed sleep. To me, the convenience is worth the extra cost.

4. Volunteer.

I’ve been a volunteer at several conferences I’ve attended, and never have I ever regretted it. Often, volunteering will land you a free or reduced-price ticket (like when I volunteered at the All Ohio Counselors Conference as a grad student and got to attend for free). Volunteering also looks good on a resumé and helps you meet others in the field at the conference (networking without even trying!).

As a volunteer, you may also get a first look at the lay of the land in the conference space (you’ll know where things are, when things are happening, and what you’re doing) and learn some of the ins and outs of the conference that regular attendees won’t get (helpful if you have anxiety and want to know what’s going on or feel more in control). I volunteered at FinCon my first year and got to meet several people who became amazing connections and friends. Another plus is that you might get extra merch for volunteering – like a tshirt I got that I still wear ALL THE TIME.

5. Speak.

Speaking at FinCon my second year of the conference was one of the best experiences of my life. I’m not exaggerating. And I’m someone who hates public speaking (though I’m learning to love it – it’s a bit addicting once you start). Speaking at a conference is another excellent resumé builder and it helps you build authority in your field, allowing you to position yourself as an expert. It affords you more networking and business opportunities, especially with audience members who are particularly interested in your topic. They very well may find you or contact you afterward to connect and/or ask questions.

Another advantage of speaking at a conference is that you may be able to attend the conference at a free or reduced rate as a speaker. Even if public speaking terrifies you, enough practice and preparation can make you a pro. I spoke on a panel, so it wasn’t just me up there; if you have the opportunity to partner up with someone or propose a panel discussion, those are all excellent and equally valid speaking opportunities!

6. Don’t be afraid to branch out.

I mean this in several different ways.

  1. Don’t stay with just your familiar group of friends or coworkers the whole time. Get out of your bubble. You’re at a conference with people from all over your area/state/country/world possibly, why would you only hang out with the same people you see all the time? Branch out and say hello to other people!! Go to dinner with someone you’ve never met before that you can learn from. It is definitely important to connect with coworkers or other people you already know at conferences. Those can be some of the most rewarding times. But it’s also incredibly beneficial to reach outside of your familiar group.
  2. Don’t be afraid to talk to the “bigger” people you admire! For me my first year at FinCon this meant I (nervously) said hi to Tess Wicks of Wander Wealthy (whose podcast I LOVE) and my second year I met SO MANY PEOPLE, including Tanja from Our Next Life, Kitty and Piggy from Bitches Get Riches, Chris from Popcorn Finance (okay, he’s in my mastermind so I already knew him, but he’s still a big deal and won a Plutus award!!), Carmen from Make Real Cents (one of my favorite Instagrammers), and Whitney Hanson from The Money Nerds. That’s just to name a few, and I’m so glad I talked to every single one of those people. We are ALL just people. It doesn’t matter if someone is more well-known in your field, they will almost always be willing to and interested in talking to you. And who knows, you may get some pointers from them and/or it could be the beginning of a foundation for a fabulous friendship or even collaborative relationship down the road.
  3. Branching out might also mean spending time alone. For me, it certainly can. As introverted as I am, I suffer from major FOMO when I feel like something might be happening that I’m not there for (even if in reality nothing is going on). I’ve learned a few things from this. It’s okay to take a break/nap/go to bed early if you’re tired – meet your own needs! Also remember that you should be present with the people you’re with. Being present is one of the best things you can do for yourself and the people around you. Enjoy what you’re doing in the moment rather than constantly wondering if there’s something else going on that you’re missing, and you’ll almost never regret the experience you actually have with the people you’re around.

Branch out of your comfort zone. Give yourself what you need, and don’t be afraid to talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to (or people you may be intimidated by – in a good way!).

7. It’s not all about the main sessions.

Obviously conferences are super educational and informational and a great opportunity to get CEUs, learn new skills, and stay up to date with research and best practices. We all know education is important for growth. These opportunities to learn can be incredible for increasing your skills and knowledge in your field.

But what if I told you….. Conferences aren’t all about the main sessions. You’ve heard me profess the praises of connecting with real people time and time again in this post, so let me just reiterate it one more time: PERHAPS THE BEST THINGS YOU CAN GET OUT OF A CONFERENCE ARE THE RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS IN THE FIELD.

One thing I love about FinCon is that the sessions are recorded. This means I can always go back later and watch ones I missed or ones that were at the same time as another one I wanted to attend. This also means that if I’m in a great conversation with someone between sessions and want to keep it going, that’s totally okay because the sessions aren’t everything. They’re great and helpful, yes. But it’s okay to weigh the pros and cons, and if you decide you’d rather continue a fantastic conversation, there’s no shame in missing a session for it.

I’m not saying to skip every session in favor of hanging out with your friends, but if you don’t need the CEU credit or if you can catch it later on video or get notes from a friend, it’s okay to skip out on one or two. See also: skipping sessions to get some rest if needed.

8. Bring business cards and be confident.

Whatever industry you’re in, bring your business cards to easily share contact info with others you may connect with. In this day and age, it’s also acceptable to just share social media info if you’re okay with giving that out to others (especially if you’re in the media space), but business cards are a great way to share a relevant email address, phone number, website, social media info, etc. Another bonus about business cards is that after you talk with someone if you get their card, you can write a note or two on the card about them to remember what you talked about and/or what you might want to follow up with them about after the conference.

Along with handing out business cards, know what you do and be confident about it. Even if you’re just starting out. You don’t have to add a qualifier like “I’m new, so I’m not the best” when talking about what you do. OWN IT! Fake it ’til you make it is real. Even if you are new in your field, there is still plenty of opportunity out there for you. The mastermind I’m a part of came about from literally a ten minute conversation with one person when I had barely started a blog and no one knew about it. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again forever – that mastermind group has been one of biggest factors of my success so far.

You CAN talk about what you do with confidence, even if you’re new at it. Even if you’re not very well-known in your field. You can still offer value to others, and you can still form relationships that will help build you up. So talk about what you do with CONFIDENCE because it matters and you are good at it!!! (Even if you don’t believe that yet.)

9. Get rest when needed

Not to beat a dead horse here, but conferencing can be tiring. Take a nap before dinner. Call your family. Take care of yourself. Put yourself out there, but know your needs and listen to them. Keeping yourself in tip-top shape so you can stay engaged throughout the conference might mean taking some breaks for yourself sometimes. It might even mean missing out on some things to give your mind and body what you need.

10. Follow up afterward

One of the most crucial things you can do after a conference is follow up with contacts you made there! What is all this relationship building/connecting/networking for if not for keeping connected afterward?! This doesn’t have to be a big production. It can be as simple as following a person or company on social media. One of the most effective forms of follow-up is sending an email. These don’t have to be a production either. They can go along the lines of:

“Hello (fellow conference-goer),

It was great to meet you at (conference name)! I enjoyed our conversation about the mechanics of hot air balloons* (*insert whatever topic you conversed about here). You’ve got some really innovative/great/creative projects you’re working on. If there’s any way I can help with or contribute to anything you’re doing, don’t hesitate to reach out, and I’ll do the same.

Kind Regards (or whatever your preferred cliche email sign-off is),

Emilie Cleaver”

SIMPLE! This also leaves the door open for future communications with that person. Following up gives you a great opportunity to remind the person who you are (they probably talked to a lot of people). Emailing will make an impression (most of the people they met probably won’t follow up), it opens the door to collaborating together, and it gives you a deeper connection with someone you may run into again in your field or maybe even at the same conference the next year.

So there you have it, my top 10 tips for getting the most out of a conference. I get so much more out of conferences now by using these tips. Is there anything I forgot that you would add? What are some of your favorite conference memories?

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