Guild Tips: What we do to get the most out of conferences

It’s just a few short weeks until the very first FocusOn Learning Conference. As you start thinking about how to spend your time in Austin, we thought we’d share a few of the tips we’ve found make conferences more useful (and just plain enjoyable) for us:

How do you choose what sessions to go to?

David Kelly: I usually vet with a simple question: Which session will help me stretch? Those are always the sessions that jump out to me. I also prefer case studies, and stories that follow the narrative of “here’s the problem we had, here’s what we did to address it, and here are the results.”

Mark Britz: I’m drawn to case-studies. I love sessions where people are sharing something they have or are doing in an organization, learning the why and how so I can extract the best principles for my own efforts. I also seek out certain speakers, those I know are always pushing the envelope and bringing something new to the event.

Bianca Woods:  I usually pick an equal mix of speakers I already know I enjoy and people I haven’t heard before but are speaking about something I’m interested in. I also tend to add a session or two about something I don’t know anything about, just to push myself. I actually coded Python for the first time as a result of one of those experiments, and it was pretty cool.

When do you settle on your conference schedule?

David: I have multiple layers to setting my schedule. If it’s a new event, I’ll usually review the schedule and make a mock plan before I even register. That planning helps me determine if it’s really worth my time to attend. Once I know I’m going, I’ll usually set my agenda a month or so ahead of the event. I’ll then revisit it during the few days before the conference (or more likely, on the plane on the way there). There are often last minute cancellations to programs, so it’s always good to check your agenda often.

Mark: Today more than ever I leverage the conference app.  I typically chose 1-3 sessions per block and then I have a plan A, B, and C in case either the presentation I’m in is not what I thought it was or I may have gained understanding in a previous session on a topic thus giving me a quick selection for another session happening at the same time. At a glance I have the location and a map to get there so I don’t miss too much time.

Bianca: About a week before I’ll sit down with the conference app, check out what’s available, and make my selections for the whole event. So I like having a plan, but I’m also pretty happy to adjust it as needed. When I’m at the conference I tend to swap out at least a few sessions on the spur of the moment based on conversations I’ve had or just what I’m in the mood for hearing about that day.

How do you connect with colleagues there (both old and new)?

David: I use social media well in advance of the events. I can’t promote that enough. There are plenty of people I’ve met for the first time in person at an event that I’ve greeted with a hug based on the interactions we’ve had online. Many of the conference apps enable you to connect with others as well. Using social media not only helps you connect while at the event, but those relationships stay with you long after the event, becoming a huge part of your personal learning network.

Mark: Physically and virtually. Not everyone I connect with is as active on Twitter as I am, so I try to make a point of finding those folks during the event either in the early AM or at lunch time. Mostly though I know who is going to be there via Twitter connection and set aside time to catch up.

Bianca: Twitter… Twitter… more Twitter. I’ll tweet about the conference beforehand to find out who’s going to be there and make plans based on that. I’ll also chat with people in the backchannel during the conference and get to know a few new people that way too.

Also, it can be tempting to skip lunches and dinners out and just retreat back to your hotel room to catch up on work (and, realistically, rest), but I strongly recommend pushing yourself to go and grab a at least a meal or two out with a few of the people you meet. Some of the best things I’ve learned at conferences came from getting a bite to eat with a L&D friend and asking about what they’re up to.

How (and when) do you reflect on the new ideas inspired by the conference?

David: I write. I try to blog my reflections as often as I can, as adding other voices to my own reflections adds to the context. I will also leverage my To Do List as well. Any time I have a thought such as “Oh that’s good – I need to look into that after the conference” I always add a quick line to Toodledo, my preferred To Do List app. Otherwise those moments of inspiration that require time for reflection to make the idea actionable can easily be lost.

Mark: I tweet a lot when I’m in sessions and that serves as my conference notes. Ideally others feed into my posts and I gain different perspective through those conversations. Mostly I make time at night to reflect after the day is done and I have time to either meet up with like-minded peers or just thumb the resource page to help me connect the dots.

Bianca: I try blogging and/or tweeting my thoughts each day as an immediate way to process the info I’ve been absorbing. Once I get back home I also like grabbing a coffee with L&D friends who didn’t get a chance to come to the conference. Chatting casually about what I saw and learned tends to help me focus on what I took away from the event and what I’m actually going to do with that information now that I’m home.


So that’s how we prepare to get the most out of the conferences we go to. Do you have your own tricks for choosing between sessions, planning your time, reflecting on the experience, or anything else you find helps you enjoy a conference more? If so, be sure to add them to the comments!

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