I’ve been fortunate enough to attend a fair amount of conferences over the past few years: everything from Business Today in New York City (started by Steve Forbes and hosted by Princeton University); to the World Business Dialogue in Cologne, Germany (where I joined a group of international students to win a startup pitching competition); to the Produced By Conference this past weekend at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood. Though each of these gatherings have been very different in subject matter, they all offered attendees the same thing; incredible opportunities.
No matter which industry you find yourself in, or stage you’re at in your career, conferences can be one of the best experiences to have on both a personal and professional level. Think about it. It’s a concentrated gathering of like-mind individuals with similar aspirations: to breed new ideas, identify trends, share knowledge and experience, and meet/interact with diverse groups of people that one would normally not have access to. With these driving forces behind them, conferences can truly evoke large-scale change and diffuse inspiration for the greater societal good.
But while all pieces to the puzzle are laid out for attendees, it’s up to YOU personally to assemble them in the right way and fully take advantage of the opportunities that are (temporarily) in the palms of your hands. Because after those few short days, the conference will end and all the unique people you briefly met will return to their lives in distant places, often never to be seen again. It’s up to you to make the most of your time while there and pave the way for your paths to cross again in the near future.
That said, I’ve sifted through my own experiences (which you can read about on my personal blog, HAUTE MAFIOSO) to find and share 5 SPECIFIC STEPS to make the most of a conference:
- Go Alone: While it’s tempting to carpool with a coworker, industry colleague, or friend – resist the urge. Humans are creatures of habit, so we tend to flock to what feels safe and who we know. That level of comfort unfortunately can trap you in a box, and doesn’t promote personal growth. To the contrary, when you’re flying solo in a group setting, you have no choice but to break free of the ego you’ve built up for yourself and meet others (who are experiencing that same degree of unease in an exposed setting). Leaving these events with new contacts is far more important than leaving with new pamphlets, so set yourself up for success by getting out there and introducing yourself!
- Break the Ice: So how do you actually meet those people then? Ice breakers. No, not your traditional “name games” (because those actually make things more awkward). My strategy to get the first word in with anyone is simple: commenting. Choose a relevant subject – the speaker, what they’re wearing, the atmosphere, something you noticed – but make sure you say something that both parties can acknowledge in the present moment. It doesn’t need to be over-the-top or smart sounding. However, it’s definitely helpful to be witty or opinionated, and to say something that piques interest more than just a comment on the weather. Hey, who wouldn’t want to talk with the funny/entertaining person in the room?
- Get Connected: Have your information ready. Something really clever I’ve seen people do is bring along printed stickers that contain information (like their name, address, social handles, etc.) to avoid having to hand out cards or fill it out on a form at a booth. ). You’ll save yourself so much time and hand-cramping, and in turn get connected with others really quick. Plus, business cards often get lost – but a sticker can be stuck to a pamphlet or other marketing materials, which people are likely to keep.
- Attend. Everything. Possible: I don’t care if you’re jet lagged. I don’t care if you’re tired. I don’t care if you think it’s probably not up your alley — attend everything they offer. Now if it sounds miserable, like a seminar on “the Art of Sleeping with Your Eyes Open,” then you can skip it. But if you’re even mildly interested in the panel or presentation — GO! You’ll never know if you like/dislike something if you don’t at least TRY IT, and that’s what a conference is for!
- The Four (4) I’s: Make it a rule that no matter what, you will only leave the conference once you have gained: information, inspiration and intrigue. Literally, DO NOT leave that conference until you have checked those off the list, for having a clearly defined set of goals in mind is what it takes to actually achieve them. Wondering what the 4th I is?
“I” (pun intended): Remember that the overall reason you attend an event like this is to pushed to the next level, challenge yourself, and to be exposed to something new. That said, never leave a conference until you’ve found at least one thing that makes you feel that you (or I) have changed. You owe yourself that.
I had a “4th I” moment this past weekend at the Producers Guild of America’s “Produced By” Conference. Though I attended excellent panels including: “The Art & Craft of Pitching for TV/Film”; “a Conversation with Reese Witherspoon & Bruna Papandrea“; and “The Future of Film Financing” where the President of STX Entertainment, Sophie Watts, was a popular panelist, I measured the success of the weekend by comparing the person I was walking in as, with the person I was walking out as. On the surface I’m the same, but by following the rules above I emerged a different woman/filmmaker/producer with a revitalized sense of purpose and creativity. A drive to push the boundaries of my current world and explore unchartered territory — in some cases with or by way of those I met at the conference.
Sometimes, you learn more about yourself from others, and more from a person than a pamphlet. And that’s what I hope you do every single day.