Photographer: Cayce Clifford/Bloomberg

Five Steps to Surviving a Conference

They can give you a career bump, or be an awkward boondoggle. Here’s how to make the best of conferences.

Work meetings at hotel bars, making small talk with total strangers, and waiting in line to use the restroom: It’s that time-tested corporate ritual, the conference. In theory, conferences should help the brightest lights in a corporate field share knowledge, enhance their industry, and advance their career. In practice, they can be an awkward boondoggle.

This week, Rebecca and Francesca went to a women’s podcasting conference in Los Angeles to do some firsthand reporting on the $14 billion conference industry. We discussed the pros and cons of gathering with industry peers in large numbers, and asked attendees to share their thoughts on compulsory networking. As a result of our conversations and experience, we developed five tips for surviving any conference:

Pick your conference. This one you’ve got to do way ahead of time, but know that the more essential to your industry and interests a conference is, the more you’ll be able to forgive its little imperfections and actually get something out of it. If you’re considering attending a conference, ask yourself if the panelists and subject matter really speak to you. One good test: Is there a word in the conference title that you use regularly in your work life? If not, it might be hard to make meaningful connections once you’re there.

Tame the flow of information. You’re going to hear a lot, from a lot of people, and it can be tempting to try to capture every nugget of insight. Don’t. Limit your notes to one or two sentences per panel, and make those sentences action items. “Call Lisa about fielding a marketing survey for 2,000 people” is a better note than “Surveys. Bigger sample size = better,” and it’s way more likely to lead to you getting something done.

Walk out of bad panels. Your time is expensive, and if someone is making a presentation that doesn’t resonate with you, there’s no law that says you have to stay there. “The stage can have this power over you,” says Rebecca, but we promise—nothing bad will happen if you leave. Oh, and the Q&A portion is almost always missable.

Keep your networking targeted. Don’t expect to meet and impress every luminary in your field. It’s too much pressure. Pick one or two people you want to try to pull aside, talk to them without wasting your time, and set a specific goal for the meeting, like arranging a follow-up meeting to learn more about their work, or letting them know you’re going to send them a pitch email.

Pack a portable charger. It’s a fact with no known scientific explanation: Conferences will instantly drain the batteries of all your devices. Bring backup—there’s nothing more annoying than a dead phone when you’re trying to collect the email address of an important connection, or stranding yourself by a hallway power outlet, waiting for your laptop to charge while everyone else is networking.

For more tips on conference survival, check out the full episode of Game Plan.

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