How to use conference attendance to build your career

Attending conferences for professional development
By Alex Burden, Professional Development Editor

29 August 2016

The swinging lanyards, unlimited coffee, and occasional free gifts – conferences can be summed in many ways, but have you stopped to think about the opportunities you might be missing out on? Alex Burden explains how to use conferences as professional development activities and gain the most from your time away from the office. 

The vast majority of us will attend a conference at some point in our working lives, and they provide key moments to meet face to face with people who have an interest or stake in your sector.

You’ve received the invite, booked your place and have already pulled up Google Maps to check the best travel route, but have you stopped to think about why you are attending? 

Are you interested in the speakers, or is there an important update you would like to hear? Have you set personal goals or aims for participating in the conference and interacting with attendees?

We asked Judy Wagner, co-founder and director of FWB Park Brown, about the 2015 ICAS conference and the learning experiences on offer to attendees, including speakers and “inspirational business leaders informing and challenging the audience”.

Judy has recognised several opportunities to develop through conference attendance, including learning from, and being inspired by, speakers and business leaders with experience as “you will always learn something useful to take away and develop for your own aspirations". 

She recommends using the time to broaden and develop your network as well as using break-out groups to debate and learn from attendees.

Judy has pivotal advice for getting the most from conference attendance: "It is the same with anything – what you put in dictates what you get out, so make the most of it: get out and meet new people rather than just gravitating to those you already know. Sit with new people and engage with them, and follow up afterwards to expand your network.

"Put yourself forward to express views or lead any discussion groups, and ask (good) questions of the speakers. And always remember to thank the organisers and leaders; they put a lot into making the conference successful and it is nice to be thanked – they’ll remember that."

Six tips to try at the next conference you attend:

1. Plan a few key activities or goals for the conference

It’s a great idea to spend five minutes looking through the conference agenda and pinpointing the elements that hold the most value for you in terms of career development, strengthening networks, or exploring new avenues. Try to connect professional development goals to the conference agenda.

2. Participate 

If there’s an opportunity to take part in the conference by submitting a paper or sitting on a panel, then do so! You will get even more out of a conference when you are fully engaged, and the people you meet may be able to shed light on the questions you have. 

Workshops are skill-building activities so get involved whenever you can. Your prior goal-planning will determine which workshops will hold the most value for you, or lay the groundwork for future development.

3. Get talking and collect contacts

You never know what opportunities or ideas might arise out of a conversation: recruiters have been known to attend conferences. There is also no harm in asking if you can connect with someone on Twitter or LinkedIn, for example.

4. Ask questions

Maybe you’ve been thinking of setting up an informal networking group, or social media forum to discuss work matters; a conference provides an ideal place to garner interest from peers and help you develop your own suggestions.

5. Ask for speaker notes

Some conferences will record speakers or provide transcripts of the speech after the event. If you feel there will be important information that can help you with your role, then ask for the speaker notes after the event.

6. Summarise what you have learned

Take a few minutes to reflect on what you have learned during the conference. You can create a summary for your colleagues or managers who did not attend, and highlight any great ideas. 

If you heard about a new specialist qualification course, then pass that information on to your HR or professional development department – opportunities are there to be created!

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  • Career development

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