Attending conferences is a great way for nonprofit professionals to learn, expand their network and stay up to date on issues facing the sector. Conferences also are a great opportunity for personal enrichment. There are many different reasons for attending conferences. Some attend as participants, while others attend as keynote speakers or seminar leaders. Whatever your reasons for going to a conference, you can take steps to make your experience both a positive and rewarding one.
Before the conference
Arrive early. Whenever possible, try to arrive a day before the conference starts. Conference speakers and organizers usually arrive early, and you can make great connections with them just by being there ahead of time.
Stay in the conference’s designated hotel, if possible. Sure, you might find a less expensive hotel a little further away, but you’ll miss out on opportunities to meet new people.
Plan sessions ahead. Once you’ve decided on the conference and registered, take the time to plan ahead. Go beyond picking out the sessions and workshops you want to attend, and set your goals and objectives. Think about the things you want to walk away from the conference with. Answering the following questions might help get you started:
■ Why am I attending?
■ Who am I looking to meet?
■ Who did I promise I would get together with?
■ What sessions at the conference do I want to attend?
Familiarize yourself with the conference. Go online and read as much as you can about the conference to set up a list of sessions you want to attend. Look at last year’s conference information and find out who returns each year as speakers.
During the conference
Go to as many sessions as you can. You’ll learn a great deal from them. Also, arrive early to those sessions you plan to attend. Nothing is more frustrating than to arrive late or just at the time a session starts and not find a seat.
Make contacts. One very important rule for conferences is to never eat alone. Breakfast, lunch and dinner are the best times you have to make contacts. Also, take advantage of networking opportunities when you can. You’ll have a great time and have the chance to talk to all those people you otherwise wouldn’t have had the time to meet.
Take notes. Always carry a pen and paper and take as many notes as you can. You don’t have to rewrite everything the speaker says or copy all the slides. Just try to keep up with the general idea and ask questions. Most good conferences also give you session notes in electronic form. So print them out and take them with you.
Find the right balance. When you attend conference parties, keep in mind that potential employers or clients might be there. You’re not really off the hook because you’re out of town. Enjoy the occasion, while balancing partying and learning.
After the conference
Book time to digest. After the conference is over, take the opportunity to really make use of your time away. Spend some time going over your notes and materials while ideas still are fresh in your mind.
Follow up. You’ll also want to follow up with all the people you met. So sort through your business cards and send e-mails. Even a short note saying, “It was great to meet you at the conference” will do. Any e-mail you send out as a follow-up will be appreciated, and the sooner you send it after the conference the better.
Fulfill your promises. If you promised to send something, do it as soon as you get back from the conference. Don’t delay, or you might forget.
Report your experiences. Share what you learned at the conference with your colleagues. A brief overview will do, but if you prefer you can jot down some lessons learned and share the knowledge.
Asked to Speak?
Before the conference
Learn about the conference. When you are initially asked to give a talk, often it is your choice to decide on the topic. But before you accept, you should make sure you have all the information you need about the conference. Your information should include:
■ the date and location;
■ the conference agenda to see who else is presenting;
■ what the organizers would like you to do; and
■ what to expect from the conference and what organizers will offer you in terms of honorarium/fees.
Prepare. Spend some time preparing and practicing your presentation and, if possible, do it in front of real people. Have them give you feedback about your talk, and time it as well. A lot of practice will allow you to appear more relaxed and confident.
However, your presentation isn’t the only thing you need to prepare before the conference. You also need to get your presentation materials (slides, PowerPoint, note cards, etc.). And be prepared for some divergences from the set plan. If, for example, the slide projector isn’t working, you should have printouts of your slides available.
At the conference
Arrive early and stay late. Arrive at your talk’s location at least 15 minutes early to check that the technology works. Also, plan to stick around afterwards to talk to people who might not have spoken up during the Q-and-A.
Use slides — correctly. Slides and other visuals help you make your point easier to understand. But don’t read the slides. Instead, use them as a guide and focus on the main point to keep you on track. If you have graphs, tables or reports, print them out and pass them out as takeaway documents.
Make the talk interactive. Here are some easy strategies to make your talk interactive and keep the audience energized:
■ Integrate questions and answers throughout your presentation.
■ Get the audience to participate by asking questions.
■ Throw in a couple of jokes or share some of your day-to-day experiences if they’re relevant to the presentation.
■ Break up the group into small groups to discuss and solve a problem.
■ Make eye contact with the audience.
Stay on time. Maintain your awareness of time throughout the presentation. True professionals never run out of time. Plan the last five minutes for an overall summary, written evaluations and last-minute questions.
After the conference
It’s usually up to you whether or not you want to stay and attend the rest of the conference. Most conferences give presenters a day pass or a complete registration. You can learn a lot by just dropping in on other talks. You might even run into an old friend or colleague. And before you leave, take time to thank the staff and the organizers.
Once back home, fill out any reimbursement forms you might have and think about what went right and what you might change next time.