The Byrne Blog · Jan 22, 2019

REACHing Beyond the Conference Conundrum

When you stop to think about it, industry conferences are pretty much an anachronism. With so much knowledge available online on just about anything, why would you need to pay thousands of dollars – not to mention taking travel time — to hear a bunch of keynoters, panels, etc. opine on subjects you can watch on YouTube or Vimeo or, gasp, read about online or (double gasp!) in a print magazine?

If you say networking is the reason, I’m going to bet you that you have had more fulfilling and educational conversations with people online through Facebook, LinkedIn or even Twitter than in the 20-30 seconds you spend talking to a long-lost friend you happen upon at a conference between sessions.

So, if it’s not education or networking, why would you ever attend an industry conference?

Call it the “conference conundrum.” Rationally, attending an industry conference seems like a waste of money and effort, not to mention the days spent out of the office (which only creates more work when you return).

But still we attend. And still pay. And nevertheless learn. And obviously network. And – most importantly – always seem to benefit. If – and this is the difference – we look at conferences as an investment in ourselves.

Call it continuing education or professional development, if you like, but whatever the label, it’s this emotional, basically selfish, reasoning that pushes us to attend conferences. So how can you achieve some level of rational benefit (rationalization?) from your presence at a fancy hotel in a nice location, attending (or even hosting) swanky dinners at restaurants you would never patronize on your own dime?

Consider it extending your REACH. I use this little acronym based upon one of my favorite poetic quotes that I first stumbled across in high school, during sophomore English class: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or, what’s a heaven for?” (h/t Robert Browning)

As winter conference season starts to heat up this week (yes, that means Marketing Partner Forum for my fellow legal marketers), maybe remember this advice to make sure your REACH exceeds your grasp:

Respect: Seems like it goes without saying, but attending a conference means you need to be respectful of others while you’re there. That means turning off your phone, typing quietly if you use a laptop… or, better yet, maybe don’t even be typing during a program or speech and just pay attention and absorb what’s being said. You’ll remember the important stuff, I promise. Retaining information requires active listening (topic for another day). Suffice to say that every single conference attendee could be more respectful.

Engage: This means a couple of different things. First, remember that you are attending what is essentially a big meeting with a bunch of strangers who share a lot of things in common with you. Why wouldn’t you strike up a conversation with another attendee? Not feeling that sociable? Chances are that you will have an opportunity at your conference to catch up with an old friend (breakfast? coffee?), a current client or vendor that you want to deepen a relationship with, or an acquaintance that you hvea a chance to help someone. The point is that to achieve a high level of benefit from a conference, you have to have a high level of engagement, whatever that looks like.

Acknowledge: It always amazing me how passive audience members are at most conferences. As someone who has spoken at a couple of dozen conferences during the past two decades (not to mention a couple of dozen other speaking gigs), I will tell you that questions are GREAT… there’s always something brought up that you wanted to talk about more, but didn’t have the time to include in your presentation. Or it’s just an interesting way to end a session, at the very least. So what should you do? Acknowledge the speakers and the effort they made to prepare by asking 1-2 thoughtful questions after the presentation (maybe even during?). And even you’re unable to ask a question, make sure to acknowledge any request by a speaker for feedback. Remember that speakers are (usually) people like you, who share a common interest (otherwise, why are they attending?). These folks are real people, not celebrities or mere digital facsimiles. You never know; you might make a new friend …

Cherish: We forget how lucky we are to be attending a work conference. You’ve been given a great opportunity – to learn, to network, to grow. Be happy about it. And as an attendee, be awesome, always assume good intent revel in being surrounded by so many smart people – and in being one of them! (Interestingly, for some folks, this can actually be the hardest part of my advice to follow.)

Honor: This is your time. This is your career, Honor yourself by investing in yourself. You’re there to nourish your intellect and build your skills. Look out for No. 1. You should learn because it’s the best thing for you, especially at any good conference. And, I hope you don’t need this pointed out, but there’s always something to learn!

So that’s it. Relatively simple, but hopefully there are some memorable aspects that you can put to good use, maybe immediately. With any luck, industry conferences will still be something that are around for quite some time… allowing you to keep reaching. And reaching…

And perhaps, sometimes, even grasping.

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