How to Prepare for a Conference

Conference Networking Tips

A work conference, like Gwyneth Paltrow and cabbage, are a love-hate thing.

No one is ambivalent about conferences. They either love them, or they loathe them.

I’m firmly in the former camp. Conferences make me wistful for my single days – the possibility of meeting someone new, the chaotic pace, and the promise of a grilled cheese sandwich in room service (versus the late-night diners I used to frequent).

I did meet my husband at a conference (NetIP 2009), so I tend to have a more romantic view of them.

Unlike a single girl’s night out, however, my conference preparations are detailed, thorough, and sober. Whether it was the JPMorgan Healthcare Conference or the recent United State of Women Summit, here’s how I get my conference game face on.

Before the conference

  • I dive into the agenda, poring over every panel, speaker, and breakout session. I like to print it out, grab some different colored pens, and mark it up with the people I want to meet, the sessions I want to attend, and if I can squeeze in a chunk of e-mail triage time between the last speaker and the cocktail event.
  • 9 times out of 10, the keynote speaker has given a similar speech at another conference. And the speech is floating somewhere in the Internet. You can assume that 80% of the content will probably be the same, so study it and outline a few questions that they probably haven’t heard before. I’ve met David Rubenstein, the patriotic philanthropist, a number of times. At the second conference he spoke at, I jostled my way to the front of the post-speech crowd. My question had nothing to do with pitching my own company or asking about the Magna Carta. Instead, I asked “Who is your favorite founding father?” (Bear in mind this was pre-Hamilton insanity, so it was a unique question).
  • Halfway through the conference, I’ll usually hit my limit and need to escape the conference fray. I’ll plan a dinner, either solo or with a friend, that is completely unrelated to the conference. I’ve had many a great meal at the bar of a restaurant, book in one hand and glass of wine in another. 

During the conference

  • A habit I’ve shamelessly stolen from my co-founder is to always sit in the front – and pay attention. Nod. Smile. Take notes (in a notebook). Be engaged. When it’s time for Q&A (and you ALWAYS want to ask a question), you’ll likely be the first to be called on.
  • Have your business cards conveniently stashed in 2-3 places – a small case in your bag, inside a jacket pocket, and tucked within your name tag. Once you meet a number of people, quietly excuse yourself and scribble down notes from your conversation on each person’s card – what you discussed, what you want to follow up with them about, the name of their dog. Details matter, as you’ll see below.
  • Drink lots of water – a glass or two, every hour. You’re constantly speaking, running from one room to another, and standing. Even if it means frequent bathroom visits, you’ll never regret being well-hydrated at a conference. Plus, you never know who you’ll meet inside the ladies’ room.

After the conference

  • Organize all the business cards you collected into the following piles – must follow-up, would be nice to follow up, toss. A good gauge of who you need to follow up with first is how many notes you’ve scribbled on their card. Transfer all the ‘keep’ business cards into a spreadsheet – name, company, title, e-mail address, conversation/follow up notes. Then toss all the cards. If you’re paranoid about missing out on a connection, transfer all the cards into your spreadsheet. I know there are iPhone apps that easily do this, but I prefer this old-school method so I can keep the contacts organized by where I met them.
  • When you’re following up after a conference, follow up with purpose – a question to ask, an article you think they’d find interesting, and so on. Skip the “hey, it was great to meet you! Here’s my pitch!” nonsense. People respond to authenticity, and to unsolicited ‘how can I help you?’ notes.
  • Schedule your follow up e-mails to go out in the middle of the following week – that way, the people you’re reconnecting with have had a chance to wade through the post-conference slog and are more receptive to receiving an e-mail. Particularly if it’s a note that can help them.
  • Plan to follow up again – a few weeks or a month later, if you never received a response (tip – use Boomerang to resend e-mails that don’t receive a reply). Life gets busy. Just be sure to have a strong reason for the e-mail – a recent press hit, their favorite football team having a noteworthy game, or an article you think they’d be interested in. 

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How do you prep for a conference? Do you have any rituals or habits you follow to a T? Share the wealth below!

More #worksmarter tips:

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  • Bookmarked this for re-reading, as I’ll be presenting at a conference in a few weeks! Would love to hear any tips you have about balancing conference time with being a tourist/seeing friends in that city and packing for both business and pleasure (and working out).

    • hithaonthego

      That would be a great post idea (filing for future notice). My co-founder’s ERW feature has some good tips on your query, at least on the packing front!

  • Jessie Buckmaster

    I LIVE for conferences! I have never learned so much, partied so hard, nor been so exhausted than after a conference. My biggest conference of the year (Greenbuild) is coming up in 3 weeks (!!). It’s in LA (I’m bummed I don’t get to travel) but we’ll have a booth and a bunch of shoulder events. I’m a sit-in-the-front, take-copious-notes person and also end up skipping at least one session for napping.

    That is so fun that you met your husband at a conference! What a great story.

    • hithaonthego

      Naps are so important – particularly if you don’t have the luxury of a hotel room (read – all the chores and no room service) to enjoy. I’m headed to the Social Good Summit in NYC on Sunday and Monday, and will be spending any extra time I have during those days with Rho and my family. And daydreaming of a nap, a robe, and a grilled cheese sandwich to enjoy in peace…

  • Brooke

    I like to bring CLIF bars with me. I like to do, hear and see everything, so my days are usually action packed. This way I have something that will keep me full incase my session goes over the provided lunch, or in case I need an extra jolt of caffeine!

    • hithaonthego

      I had no idea CLIF bars have caffeine. I’m stocking up now – some days I forget to break for lunch, and then I’m a hungry beast.

  • Meems

    The timing of this post is on point as usual! Great tips, love conferences, do my research on the speakers and always sit in the front row. Did not think to look into similar talks. I agree, the pitch is on repeat. I need advice on a personal dilemma though, the cocktail events. I dread them :o(. I do not drink alcohol and feel so awkward at the after hour socials which are always alcohol themed and often the topic of conversation. I appreciate the value added by networking but would much rather do it in between breaks or over lunch. Any suggestions on how I can handle this situation?

    • hithaonthego

      First – thank you for sharing your great question. You are not alone.
      When I’m not drinking during a networking event, I ask for a club soda in a short glass with ice and a lime. It looks just like a gin and tonic. An obvious tip, but it really does work. I swore by it when I was pregnant.
      If you do the bulk of your networking during breaks and lunch, be very selective with your time. Quickly excuse yourself (make up a call, or meeting up with a colleague) if you find the conversation isn’t going to be value-added for you. Buffet lunches are your best friend – only get a small amount of food the first time, and use it as an excuse for multiple visits to the buffet itself and to sit at a new table each time.

      I hope these tips help you!

      • Meems

        The tips help me tremendously! I will definitely use the buffet tip next week.
        P.S. Go Eagles!!!

  • Liz C.

    Great post! I spend so much of my time on the “other” side of conferences (I’m the trade show coordinator for our company) that I almost feel lost when I’m an actual attendee – definitely filing these tips for my own future use.

    • hithaonthego

      I’m so glad you found the post helpful, Liz! Working the booth (and putting in the work to create said booth) is no joke, as I’m newly learning.