Often times the overall price of attending a conference is nothing to sneeze at when you factor in the cost of the conference, lodging, meals, and flights. You should ensure when attending on behalf of your company or for yourself that you are getting the most from your dollar.
Perhaps I never noticed this before but at some conferences I recently attended, it seemed only half the people in the session were actually paying attention to the speaker. I mostly blame this on modern technology and the abundant availability of free Wi-Fi at the conferences. Any of us, not excluding myself, can easily get distracted with email, Facebook, or the urge to look something up form our beloved electronic devices. However, these little distractions add up and easily get us further distracted which is not only a waste of time and money but it is also rude to the presenter giving the talk!
Below are some tips that should help you get the most of your conference, stay focused, and give your undivided attention to the speaker. Some of them are easy and some will likely require habitual changes that may be difficult at first but will hopefully provide better end results. Also note that these are just my personal recommendations and will not work for everybody. If you have other suggestions and ideas, please feel free to provide them in the comments below.
Successfully attending a conference starts long before you step foot into a session. I recommend that if at all possible you should book your lodging at the conference hotel. From a scheduling perspective, staying at the conference hotel—assuming the conference is at the same location—will provide you the most timewise advantages. For starters, you can sleep a little bit longer knowing you simply have to walk down to another floor in the hotel to get to the conference rather than having to be concerned about transportation to and from the conference site. In the mornings you can enjoy breakfast and coffee while catching up on news or email from work. At end of the day, you may revel in the idea that when you are tired, you may simply go back to your room and go to bed.
Close proximity to your room has other advantages as well. Attending conferences can be exhausting at times. Lets say you have a break coming up or there are no interesting sessions during one of the session periods, you can head back to your room for a power nap—a nap that is 30 minutes or less—to wake refreshed and ready to conquer the rest of the day. This brings up the point that you should get enough sleep in the first place. This is difficult to do at times as many conferences have late night parties or you are staying up at night networking with people. However, it is fair to note that your body can’t run on little sleep for very long so be mindful of this if you want to give your mind a fighting chance at staying focused during the sessions.
One of the trends I observe is how often folks seem to need to charge their devices either around the conference center or during the sessions. They usually choose seats near the outlets so they can remain plugged in the whole time. I used to do this as well but it really limited my seating choices and constantly stressed me out thinking I was going to run out of power. What I decided to do at my most recent conference was to leave my phone and computer chargers in my room. This forced me to conserve power by simply using them less. I will get into this more below.
The rooms at a conference center are notorious for being on the colder side. This might be welcome to some people but many people also find it distracting so I always recommend folks bring warm clothes such as a jacket or to wear long sleeve shirts. I was recently at the Agile2012 conference in Dallas, Texas which was in the middle of August. While it was very hot and humid outside, the conference center was plenty frigid. I packed and wore long sleeve shirts that I rolled up when I went outside, and rolled down in the conference halls.
Most conferences I’ve attended have food that is higher in carbohydrates and not as high in protein and especially not high in fiber. The latter two are really what are necessary to keep your body fueled whilst sitting in conference rooms all day. When food is available, it’s okay to have some of the carb-filled items but limit them and try to get more protein and fiber into your system, even if it means you have to grab a more nutritious option at the hotel cafe or local restaurant. This is especially important during breakfast time as it sets your metabolism for the rest of the day. In addition, it is always a good idea to stay hydrated with water but you obviously don’t want to drink so much that you are having to get up constantly during your sessions.
Before attending a session
There are a few more things you can do to help you stay focused, frankly, I think these are the most important. You should take a look at the schedule ahead of time and plan which sessions you would like to attend. This helps to ensure you won’t be scrambling at the last minute finding the right conference room or getting distracted in one of your other sessions to find your next one. If there is more than one session at the same time as another you are interested in, choose the one you would like to attend in person—don’t attempt to attend both sessions by splitting your time. This not only cheats yourself, but leaving the middle of your session and joining another is a distraction to yourself, the people around you, and the speaker as well. Often times, the sessions are videotaped or have an audio recording available at a later time. Slides are almost always posted online prior or after the session so it is a good idea to get those if you can beforehand. At least download them after to go over with your notes.
In the session
First off, sit at the front of the room if possible. I found this to be one of the most effective methods to help me stay focused for a variety of reasons. First of which, there is a better chance of making eye contact with the speaker thereby creating a stronger personal connection. Secondly, it is less likely that people leaving in the middle of the session will be exiting at the front of the room. Finally, sitting near or at the front will minimize the amount of distraction you will have from attendees in front of you when they are on their computers, fidgeting or other distracting movements.
It seems very convenient that we take our laptop and iPads to the sessions for note taking; I myself was a large proponent of this for quite some time. Your mileage may vary but what I found myself doing more often than not, was getting distracted whether I would check for new email, look something up, or other online distractions. It’s not that I don’t take these devices with me, I just turn them off as soon as the session is about to begin. Nowadays, I handwrite my notes during my session in a Moleskine notebook and more recently an Evernote Smart Notebook by Moleskine which allows me to capture and search my notes within Evernote later.
Handwriting my notes has greatly increase my attention span during sessions for the reasons I mentioned before with regards to distractions, but it has also allowed me to listen more intently and summarize the high points in my notes rather than typing rapidly—because I can—typing everything in sight but not really letting it settle in. I will also make additional notes or action points, as I like to call them, that point out things I need to look up later. For example, most of the “bullet points” I use in my notes are a simple dash/hyphen (-). However if there is something I want to look up later such as a piece of software or book that was mentioned, I will use an asterisk (*) instead. Furthermore, if there is a slide I want to revisit when I download the slides at a later time I will use a capital S surrounded by brackets [S] with the title of the slide preceding or following it. These two symbols standout amongst my other bullets making it very easy for me to find and act on them later.
Perhaps some people like getting distracted at conferences but I know for me, my time is valuable and I am much more interested in holding myself accountable to get the most out of them as they are a privilege for me to attend. As I mentioned earlier, please provide your thoughts and comments below if you have any other ideas or constructive criticism.