Week 65: Making the Most Out of Conferences

It is conference season in my world. I have attended many professional development sessions and conferences over the summer aimed at providing educators and other stakeholders worthwhile ammunition to kick-off their school year. However, here is what I hear (over and over and over again)….

            Ugh, this is such a waste of time (eyes rolling back)

            It is freezing in here…or… It is a sauna in here.

            The food is terrible…or they ran out of food…or the food is cold.

            I have so much WORK to do, why am I here?

In general, the demeanor of many conference goers is negative before they even step up to the registration table. So, while this post’s topic seems extraneous to straight-up evaluation use, it is relevant because we all find ourselves at conferences. Often as an evaluator, I attend these conferences to either provide feedback on the sessions or to support grantees that are attending. I too have a growing list of complaints about conferences I’ve attended this summer, especially when the content does not seem worthwhile to waste a full day’s time. However, below is a list of tips for those that find themselves at a conference and struggling to find meaning or make sense of their purpose and time there.

  1. Get to know everyone at your table. Exchange cards, but also get to know each other well enough that you could call on them if there was an appropriate opportunity to do so.
  2. Be positive. Negativity is the influenza of conferences—eye rolling and murmurs or disgust and getting on your phone are contagious. Instead, try to hear what may be worthwhile.
  3. Make it a goal to leave with three take-aways. If you have to be there anyway, try to learn three new things from a presenter or other people attending the conference. Don’t let yourself close off and disengage, despite the tremendous amount of self-discipline that may take. If you are signed up for a session that is covering content that you are not interested in, take note of who is in the room or think about how your work might intersect with this seemingly unrelated topic.
  4. If you do have a complaint about the room temperature/food, take that complaint to the front desk of the hotel/facility or write a letter/email after the fact to the facility management. There is likely nothing they can do on the spot to make you comfortable, so wasting time stewing about it or talking with your colleagues won’t make it go away.
  5. Take the time to complete the event feedback survey. Often this is passed out at the end of a conference (so stay for it). It is the best opportunity you will have to impact the conference in future years.
  6. Stay off of your phone during presentations. While it is SO hard to do, putting your phone away is a basic courtesy to the presenters and sends a message to the others at your table that you are there to engage. It might just change the tenor of your experience!

KELLEY’S USEFUL TIP: Before agreeing to attend a conference, try to verbalize or write out three rational reasons why it is worth your time to attend. Sometimes the desire to travel or “get out of the office” sound good in theory, but being at a conference that is not tightly aligned with your professional objectives is a waste of time. If you can’t come up with three reasons, it probably isn’t worth it.