Making the Most of Conferences

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This is the time of the year many of us attend conferences.

We attend continuing education programs, bar association meetings, industry conferences, and other events that involve lots of people.

Attending events–any event–is a good thing. It’s good to get out of the office and talk to other humans. It’s good for business. It connects you with other people.

It’s good to attend conferences, even if the only thing you accomplish is exchanging business cards with the woman in the Starbucks line in Macau. She might refer your next big case.

Today I want to talk about how to make the most of attending a conference.

Pick a good conference

I’ve attended some weird events. Most recently I attended the National Association of Broadcasters. I was surrounded by vendors selling satellite trucks, commercial drones, and television transmitters.

That conference was huge. More than 100,000 people attended, but I had little in common with anyone I met.

But I still managed to meet a lot of people. I continue to interact with people I never would have met otherwise. I learned quite a bit about things I never thought I’d know.

Sometimes attending something totally unrelated to your work is mentally stimulating. It helps you access different ideas and approaches to business.

Was the NAB the right conference for me? Probably not. It was interesting, but not efficient.

Your first step is to put yourself in a target-rich environment. You want be in a place where you’ll be well-received and have a chance to meet other people.

Pick something rational for the growth of your business, like an association event that relates to your practice area. Check out events that relate to your clients and referral sources.

Attend educational events, too, especially around topics like marketing, management, technology, or your specific area of the law.

Oh, attend the pertinent bar association meetings, too.

Set your objective

Before you attend an event, ask yourself why you’re attending.

What do you expect to get from the conference? How will you measure your effectiveness? What are the short-term and long-term goals?

Most of us register for a conference when the advertisement catches our eye. We book the flight and hotel and promptly forget we’re going until the week before. Then we rush around like a crazy person to catch up on work so can be out of the office for a few days.

By the time we get on the plane, we still haven’t looked at the conference agenda or planned our time. So we frantically study the conference’s program materials while we fly.

At the conference, we’re overwhelmed by the session options and confused by the crowd (which seems like chaos to us, but probably has its own order).

Many of us spend two days trying to figure out how to wear our lanyard with the name tag facing out, trying to connect to the Wi-Fi, and struggling to find the bathroom.

Don’t show up at a conference without an agenda. Organize a plan in advance so you can spend your time at the event being an efficient, effective, people-meeting machine.

Go in with people targets

If the event organizer shares a directory of attendees and vendors, get a copy. Some conferences resist giving out the list, but small events (bar associations, in particular) don’t care.

Create two lists: People you’ve met before and people you’d like to meet.

Browse the vendor list, too. Look for businesses offering something interesting or companies that represent dynamic forces in your industry.

You want to show up having already identified the players and the people you need to meet.

Research each person you’d like to meet. LinkedIn and Google are your friends here.

Read whatever they’ve written recently, what’s happening with their business, and anywhere they were mentioned in the news. Check them out on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Find out what they had for lunch yesterday, if you can.

Bring a wingperson

I know some of you are having heart palpitations reading this article.

You might be sweating at the idea of having to actually meet people instead of hiding in the back row. This is downright terrifying for some people.

If you’re scared and want stop reading, here’s an approach that might help you attend the conference, meet people, and grow your practice:

Don’t go alone. Bring a wingman (or woman).

Ask around and find another lawyer who’d like to attend with you. This person doesn’t have to live and work in your geographic area. You’re probably driving or flying to the conference anyway, so just meet there.

Your wingman can come from anywhere so long as you both find the conference valuable.

Stay in the hotel

You’re going to work at the conference, so keep things simple by staying at the conference hotel.

Yes, it’s expensive to stay in the primary event hotel. That’s where the action happens, so do it anyway.

Of course, some conferences are big and there’s no single hotel. If that’s the case, pick the best hotel location for the cluster of events you’ll attend. The reality of some of the huge conferences is that you’ll leave your room at 7 AM and not return until midnight, so location matters less in this situation anyway.

Prepare an elevator pitch

Prepare your elevator pitch in advance. Of course, you’re better off listening than talking, but you’ll need to introduce yourself.

What’s your name? Where are you from? What do you do? Why are you here?

When the time comes, just introduce yourself. Keep your pitch simple. Don’t try be amusing because it doesn’t always work. (Trust me, I know.)

Keep in mind that everyone is there to meet people. We all need to grow our connections. You aren’t the only person attending the event in order to increase business. Everyone else is doing the same thing.

Bring nice business cards

Personally, I don’t usually carry business cards. How does that work for me? Poorly. I spend a lot of time emailing people my contact info or scrawling my details on a piece of paper.

Keep a stack of business cards in your pocket throughout the entire event.

Oh, and don’t go crazy with your card. I’ve met lawyers with special cards printed in some fancy, expensive way. Where do those cards end up? In the pile with the rest. Just print simple cards.

Sit with people you don’t know

“May I join you?” is the question to ask.

Sit with strangers at every opportunity. Don’t sit with the guy you know from home. You’re investing a lot to attend the conference, in both time and money, so roll the damn dice and sit with someone new.

I’ve stumbled into some amazing lunches at conferences. The people I met would never have sat with me if they’d realized I was a nobody.

Jump into the conversation. Ask questions, make comments, and make yourself a part of what’s happening. Don’t hold back. Be the person you’ve always wanted to be, since these people don’t know you yet anyway.

Don’t accost strangers only at meal time. Do the same thing in sessions.

Arrive close to a session’s scheduled start time so there are other people in the room already. Grab a spot near other people and introduce yourself to everyone before the session starts.

As the session wraps up, use your new friends as a sounding board. Ask questions about the presentation, what they thought, and how they’ll use the information. Carry those conversations outside as you wander to the show floor or the snack tables.

Go to the sessions

Some people recommend skipping the sessions and hanging out on the periphery to chat with more attendees.

I don’t agree with that. I think you can attend the sessions and meet people. If you use your time wisely and stick to your plan, you should have time for both.

The sessions are valuable. You’ll learn things and have a chance to meet the speakers. Feel free to skip the occasional session, but show up and learn things.

Plan your dinners

Use the attendee list to arrange some dinners before you go. Invite some folks you know and some from your list of people you’d like to meet.

Each type of event will require a different approach, but you can get the ball rolling by picking a time and place and booking a table for more seats than you need. Pick somewhere that’s hard to get into, so that your invitation is more appealing.

Meet the vendors

Some vendors are obnoxious. Most are pushy. But these folks tend to stick around while others come and go. The vendors are involved with this group of humans for the long haul.

Get to know some of the vendors. Buy from them when appropriate, share your insights, and listen to their thoughts.

Vendors can present opportunities you might not expect. Some will involve you in their planning and product development. Some will ask you to participate in case studies to promote their products. Some will invite you to their parties at the event.

Go to the parties

These conferences are inevitably loaded with parties. In fact, the parties are often the best part.

Go to the parties. Don’t hide out in your room. Use the parties as opportunities to meet even more people.

Personally, I hesitate to go. I’m usually tired because I woke up early and worked the event all day. But I signed up for the conference so I could meet people, so I put on my big-boy pants and go to the party.

When you go to the parties, bring your business cards and elevator pitch.

Hang out in the bar

You got up early. You attended the morning sessions. You sat with strangers for lunch. You attended more sessions and had dinner with more people. You are beyond tired.

Now, go to the bar. Order a sparkling water (or a beer) and hang out. Meet more people. You can sleep when you’re dead. This is game time.

Try not to end up back in your room with a hook-up. An overnight guest will sap the energy you need for the next day (and your spouse might get annoyed).

The bar is a great place to meet more people and make more connections. You’ll likely run into vendors because they know how to play the game.

Keep playing the game until you’re completely out of gas.

Pay the bill

Don’t let anyone else pay. Jump in and pay first if you can afford it. Don’t weigh each expense and try to gauge whether it’s to your benefit. Just pay the bill.

Paying the bill builds equity in your reputation. It makes a good impression and makes other people feel obligated to you.

Crank up your balance in the bank of good will by paying for meals, drinks, taxis, or whatever else.

Exhaust yourself

Conferences are not vacations. You should leave everything on the field. Don’t keep anything in reserve.

You invest money for registration fees, flights, hotel rooms, meals, and drinks. You spend time attending sessions and meeting people.

Conferences actually cost a lot, but this is what it takes to make them work for you, so you need to maximize your investment.

If you can keep your eyes open in the Uber back to the airport, then you did it wrong. You want to leave exhausted because you gave it your all.

Follow-up

Once you get home, get some sleep, and get back to the office. It’s time to follow up.

Put your new acquaintances in your tracking system. Touch base and remind them you exist. Ask a question, send them the info you promised, or simply let them know you enjoyed meeting them.

The conference is over but the relationship is just starting.

Following up is not a one-time deal. Use your notes and your system–you do have a system, right?–to keep in touch, correspond, connect on social media, and plan your next meeting. These people will turn into referral sources, speaking opportunities, publication possibilities, and clients.

Keep in touch, be generous and helpful, and turn these new connections into old friends.

Get a return on your investment

You’ll spend big money on a conference. Sure, there are less expensive options, but if you go all in on a big-league conference, it will require some cash.

It’s fairly common for registration to run $2,000. Your hotel will likely run you another $1,500. Your meals and bar tab (including paying for your new friends) will run another $2,000.

Plus you’ll spend some money on taxis and flights. Let’s assume you’ll spend $5,000 all together.

That’s expensive. And that doesn’t include the value of your time. Let’s assume three days out of the office cost at least another $5,000.

That’s a $10,000 investment in a single conference.

You better go into that conference with your head screwed on right, ready to meet people and follow up, or you’ll waste your investment.

You need at least a 7X return on that investment. You ought to generate $70,000 in revenue as a result of that $10,000 expenditure. Otherwise you’d be better off spending that $10,000 on bus benches or printed matchbooks.

Your return won’t come immediately. It’ll come in the form of new relationships which pay over the long haul and lead to lots of other relationships.

It’s important to understand the costs and benefits of conferences to motivate you to get up early and stay out late with your new friends.

Have fun

Conferences can be a blast. There’s no reason you can’t have fun.

I really enjoyed my visit to the National Association of Broadcasters. I’ve been to other crazy conferences as well and I’ve always learned some things, met interesting people, and found my head spinning with new ideas that I can borrow from other industries.

Everyone who attends a conference is there to meet new people, learn new things, and have a good time. It’s a perfect situation for fun.

Going to a conference is a smart decision. You’re getting out of the office and talking to other human beings. It truly is good for business.

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