August 16, 2009

Invest in you: tips for getting the most out of your conference attendance

Blog Indiana isn’t over for me. Sponsored by the School of Informatics at IUPUI and other corporate sponsors, this three-day conference on blogging and social media ended yesterday. It jangled my nerves. It reconnected me with someone I hadn’t seen in almost a decade. It freed me of some self-limiting beliefs that have dogged me for years. And it introduced me to a bunch of people and ideas that made it hard to fall asleep two nights in a row. That’s the most exciting way I’ve spent $250 in a long time.

What about you? When was the last time you attended a conference? Here are some tips for getting the most of your investment in professional development:

1) Go to conferences whether you have the money or not. It’s one of the few things in life where the “buy now, pay later” plan isn’t such a bad idea. People tend to wince over the cost of registration and travel expenses during tough economic times. These are the most important times to invest in you. You’ll learn things that make you more marketable. People (read: prospective employers or customers) will automatically think well of you because you are someone who is interested, engaged and all about growth.

2) Don’t stick too close to home. I’m not talking about geography here. Get outside your immediate discipline and get a bigger lens on the world. Think the way other people think for a few days. Every profession is guilty of myopia to some extent. You get tired of your same old tools and approaches to every problem. Look beyond the obvious conferences for your profession. I’m a part-time librarian and former writer who is involved in my husband’s manufacturer’s rep firm. This summer, I attended a conference for manufacturers rep agents and one for people who are involved with blogging and social media for business. I decided not to attend the big national conference for librarians even though it was just a three-hour drive and travel expenses would be low. Why? My potential for growth was greater when I put myself a little outside my immediate work experience.

3) Don’t be afraid to look stupid. You never know when this may help. In one standing-room-only session of Blog Indiana, I sat down on the floor next to a guy who was busy setting up his laptop. While we waited for the session to start, he asked why I had come. I said I wasn’t sure yet. “We don’t know if it’s wise for our business to use social networking tools due to unique circumstances in our market,” I said, explaining the nature of our business. I braced myself for the reaction I’d gotten earlier that day from a CEO and sponsor of the event: he poked fun of a group he’d spoken to the previous week, a group of stodgy men in their sixties who own businesses that make industrial products. They challenged his notion that they should jump on the social networking bandwagon. He dismissed them as a clueless lot, revealing his own brand of narrow-mindedness. I picture successful entrepreneurs I know personally who have made a lot of money because of good timing. They know they don’t always need to be first to the table to win, especially now that exit strategies like retirement are looming. Realizing their own short horizon for making money with new tools doesn’t make them idiots. The smart guy with the laptop, Chip McComb, director of internet marketing at Fuseworks Studios, respected the fact that we know more about our business than he does. He introduced me by e-mail to a colleague who has used these tools successfully in a similar business. I now have a link to someone with the right set of experiences to inform our deliberation. Think I’ll remember Chip? You bet I will.

4) Be open. Be curious. Talk to everyone. I met some people who are doing truly fascinating things. They know that I admire them because I listened intently. They enlarged my view of what is possible. I have at least a dozen new friends I can talk to because of my summer conference attendance. In my book, he who dies with the most friends wins.

5) Tell someone what you’ve learned immediately. I couldn’t wait for my husband to get home on the final night of the Blog Indiana conference. I called a friend the next morning and got her out of bed to share the part I wanted her to know. I probably crossed a boundary there, selfishly calling early on a Saturday morning. The act of telling someone what you learned at a conference is like teaching. When we teach, we reinforce what we learn.

6) Prepare a one-page action plan. If the conference is really good, your head may be spinning with ideas. Your notes may be copious. Don’t try to do everything. Make a one-page action plan, pick the top three items and start working on them immediately. Make a resource list of every person or source you may want to explore further.

7) Visit your notes frequently. It’s easy to attend a conference, take a lot of notes, and go back to work unchanged. Challenge yourself to sit with your notes and review them again and again. What’s the point of professional development if it doesn’t somehow change who you are and how you operate for a better result?

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