The beginner's guide to attending a conference

The beginner's guide to attending a conference

To gain a competitive career edge, it’s important to make learning an ongoing part of your professional development. Conferences are short and practical opportunities to learn new information and make valuable contacts. 

But attending a conference can be an intimidating experience, particularly the first time. If you’re planning on taking a day or more out of the office to attend a conference, a bit of preparation will ensure that investment pays real dividends for your career.

The conference experience begins before the event 

Ask yourself why you want to attend the conference

Even before you select a conference to attend, it’s important to understand ‘why’ you want to attend a conference in the first place. Ask yourself these questions: 

  1. Am I trying to learn something new?
    If so, clearly identify your desired learning outcomes. Identify two or three major learning outcomes then use these to review conference programs of interest.

  2. Do I want to meet people that may benefit my career?
    Seasoned conference attendees often say they get more out of their time in the corridors than they do in the sessions themselves. Think about who the people are that you want to meet. Most conference sales materials will provide a breakdown of the typical attendees. If they don’t, contact the organisers and ask. Review this and ensure it aligns with your contact goals otherwise finding someone you have something in common with among hundreds, or thousands, of attendees will be like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack.

  3. Am I attending because I’ve been told to?
    If your manager suggests you attend a conference, ask them what outcomes they would like to see you achieve. Think carefully about their response and make sure you feel you, and the conference, can deliver on those expectations. If the answer is no, investigate alternatives and present them to your manager for consideration with a clear explanation about how each will add value to the organisation and support your development.

Get approval from your manager

If attending a conference is your initiative, you may need to gain approval. Many events create videos or email pitches you can share with your manager to help explain the benefits. If you need to create your own pitch, focus on explaining how your attendance will benefit the organisation goals and identify how those goals are aligned with the learning outcomes of the conference. Explain how your development and contribution to the organisation will be enhanced and offer to share information with your team when you return to the office.

Review the conference agenda and make an action plan

Most conferences are a mix of key note events that are the only session running at that time, and breakout sessions that will require you to choose between various options. 

Go through the program and make a list of the activities that correspond closely to your goals – sometimes this will be through content, but it could also be the connection you make to the speaker or the attendees in a session.

For each set of concurrent sessions start by crossing out any that are not relevant or that you have no interest in. For the remaining sessions, rank them in order of relevance. If you are still left with two sessions you have equal interest in that are running at the same time, ask yourself which one will deliver the most immediate benefit.

You might want to consider attending a few sessions outside your primary speciality or interest area. It can be a gamble, but you may stumble across something new that you want to follow up in the future.

It’s likely you will miss out on something you were interested in attending but do check with the organisers whether attendees receive recordings or handouts for all the sessions – it may make your planning process easier if you know you can catch up on the less relevant content at a later date.

Final conference preparation checklist

  1. Join any groups or download the conference app so you can start connecting with the other attendees.

  2. Sign up for any extracurricular networking activities. 

  3. Prepare your elevator pitch – your name, what you do and why you are at the conference. Craft that information into a short introduction of 20-30 seconds.

  4. Familiarise yourself with the event venue by reviewing the floor plans so you know how to move between sessions easily and find the best travel route to and from the venue itself.

  5. If the conference is in another city or country, you may want to add a few days of annual leave to your time out of the office. If that’s not possible, commit to getting up early each day and taking yourself out on one or two hour walking tours before the sessions begin. Be mindful of safety and check with the hotel concierge if you have any doubts about an area.

  6. Organise the essentials – bottled water, phone, charger, your preferred note taking pen/paper or device, a printed copy of the conference program and plenty of business cards.

  7. Choose an outfit that will give you confidence on the day with comfortable shoes and layers to manage temperature changes.

  8. Some conferences allow you to complete part of the registration process beforehand – this is a real time-saver on the day, so take advantage of it if it’s on offer.

  9. Set up an out of office message and provide an alternative contact for urgent requests.

  10. Relax. You’re now as prepared as you can be to truly enjoy and benefit from the event.

At the conference

Avoid the queues and aim to register early if you haven’t preregistered so you have time to explore the venue and make sure you know where the important rooms are, including the bathroom. 

Some conferences offer a special familiarisation session for first time attendees, or have staff allocated to assist with networking. Take advantage of this. You’ll get insider tips on making the most of that particular conference and the people the intro session, particularly those on their own, will be looking to connect with others at this time.

Commit to an outcome and stay organised

Develop a method to manage the information you are gathering. For each session, start by noting the session name and speaker. Leave some room for three key takeaways and add these when something really impresses you. Self-adhesive coloured tabs are a great way of highlighting pages if you are using a notebook with important information you want to come back to.

If you do like to take copious notes consider this - most people head home and never actually do anything with the pages and pages of content they have compiled. Commit to only taking one or two big ideas from each session. Then at the end when you have a list of one or two big ideas from each session, pick two or three that could really have a big impact on your life or work.

If the speaker has a visual presentation, ask the organisers whether you will have access to a copy afterwards. If not, take a photo of a few key slides that really resonate with you to add to your notes after the conference.

Increase the value of attending the conference

Sit in the front row (unless you think you are going to leave early). The front row has the best view and the best sound. And you’ll most likely be picked if you have a question.

Speaking of which - ask questions. At most conferences, there will be a dedicated question time at the end of the event. Raise your hand and if selected, it’s likely an event staff member will bring a microphone to you. If they don’t have microphones, speak clearly and loudly so the other attendees can hear and get value out of the question. Remember, you are representing the entire audience. Try to make questions valuable to as many people as possible, not about you personally or your company. It’s generally ok to approach the speaker at the end of the session as well if they are clearly comfortable stopping and speaking with the attendees.

Network like a pro at your conference

Meeting new people is one of the important benefits of attending a conference. If you’re attending with colleagues, make sure you split up and sit or mingle with new people. If you’re on your own, particularly if you’re an introvert, you’re going to need to make an effort to connect with people. Try these tips:

  1. Concentrate on the high value contacts – speakers, event organisers and attendees that can add value to your career now or in the future.

  2. Listen more, talk less. If you allow others to shine they will enjoy the conversation and it will be memorable when you reach out to them after the event.

  3. Look for someone else sitting or standing alone before a session begins and introduce yourself.

  4. If the conference has an exhibitor area, have a chat to the representatives and other attendees who approach the booths.

  5. Pay attention to your body language – don’t stand in the corner on your own. Make eye contact, smile and use your 30 second elevator pitch.

  6. Think outside the box –try something different like taking a selfie with a group of people nearby and posting it to Twitter. Ask for their handles so you can tag them.

  7. If you struggle to remember names, try creating a visual association so you have an additional memory prompt. Imagine the person you have just met hugging or shaking hands with someone else you know with the same name. And if you do forget someone’s name, be honest.

  8. Have an excuse up your sleeve in case you need to extract yourself from a conversation.

  9. If you exchange business cards with someone, it’s worth adding a few notes to the back of the card – the context of how you met and a brief physical description to prompt your memory later. Also make note of any follow ups you agreed to.

  10. If you are on your own at a conference and start to feel uncomfortable or lonely, take a break.

Stay focussed

Don’t check email during sessions and only use social media to join the conversation at the conference by using the designated hashtag. But don’t overdo it - one or two posts per session is plenty – you’re looking for a great soundbite – something you wish you said yourself. You may want to get a photo and add that – really good images of the speaker or an important point from their visual presentation tend to be very popular. If the speaker is on social media and you are posting something positive, make sure you tag them. Most speakers with a social media presence will read the coverage of their session and it is another way to get on their radar.

Enjoy yourself at the conference

Particularly if it is a multiple day conference, you’re likely to get exhausted. If a session isn’t for you, take a break. It’s important to know and be true to your own limits. You’re at the conference to learn but don’t be afraid to have fun with colleagues and new contacts. 

Don’t be tempted to talk shop all the time – ask people general questions about their lives as well and share information about yourself.  

Just remember to keep everything in moderation – at the end of the day you’re still representing yourself and your company as a professional.

After the conference

Once you get back to the office, it’s easy to let your good intention slip. Immediately put aside a few hours in the first week following the event to put your plans into action.
Start by adding the people you met to your contact file, then follow up via email or LinkedIn with a short message contextualising your meeting and explaining why you’d like to stay in touch. You should also reach out to the event organisers to thank them if you were happy with the event and to provide constructive feedback.

If some of your colleagues also attended, suggest putting a time in your diaries to catch up and debrief, then another time a little later as an ‘accountability’ check to ensure you have all followed through on your implementation plans.

Share your conference learnings

Create a hardcopy or digital master file of any photos, handouts or presentations you received, then create a short index of the information to share with your manager and colleagues to see if anyone is interested in receiving a copy of the more detailed information. 

Depending on the outcomes you agreed to with your manager, share your learnings and possibly deliver a short presentation to colleagues.

Implement the lessons you’ve learned

Make a plan to put some of your knowledge into practice. This will feel like a ruthless process but if you tackle the entire set of takeaways, you’re likely to end up down the proverbial rabbit hole rather than in action mode.

You should have 2-3 points from each session. Compile them into one big list then choose two or three that really excite you. Work them up into a short action list then present them to your manager for approval to proceed. Make sure you are choosing actions that are relevant for both you and your organisation and realistic in terms of time frame, budget and team capability/resources. This process of refinement will make it more likely to get buy-in to move forward from your team and your manager.

This will also show the value of the event to your manager and could make it much easier to gain approval to attend future events.

The CPA Congress organisers share their top tips for conference attendees

  • Check out the CPA Congress ‘Convince the Boss’ advice for ideas on demonstrating return on investment to your manager.
  • Prepare and plan your time and make sure you have specific objectives for learning outcomes and networking.
  • When you are networking with peers at the event, make the most of the opportunity to understand how other organisations are handling common issues.
  • Find out what other companies are doing to stay competitive.
  • Provide feedback on speakers and content to the organisers. 
  • When you learn new skills offer to share them with your co-workers if they are interested.

Make sure you’re getting the most out of attending a conference with CPA Australia’s Podcast

Learning is an important part of ongoing professional development to help maintain a competitive career advantage. Conferences offer the chance to learn new information and expand your network. Tune in as Rob Thomason, Executive General Manager Education at CPA Australia talks about attending conferences and CPA Congress.

Listen here:


CPA Career Mentor


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