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Three Essential Truths to get the Most Out of Conferences

Finally it is here, that conference you’ve been looking forward to for months. You’re excited to learn and stay connected with the latest and greatest thinking in your field.

You arrive, quickly check-in, and step into the great hall. You instinctively try to swallow, but for some reason your throat won’t allow it. Your senses heighten; noises and lights seem to be more intense than you thought they would be. A group of people are chatting and laughing together like old friends. Scanning the room, you spot a seat in the back with very few people around it – that’s the spot for you – your friends aren’t here.

You avoid direct eye contact with the few people you pass on the way there, and you sit down immediately. You check your phone, and there is still fifteen minutes before the opening speaker begins. Damn. So you pop open your favorite app and lose yourself in it, hoping beyond hope no one will talk to you.

The conference begins, and you fully give your attention to the speakers. You are here for a reason – to glean everything you can from these experts and nothing else will get in your way.

Sound familiar? This was my approach to conferences and large training seminars for a long time. If you can relate to this line of thinking, I encourage you to change your thinking about conferences.

Truth 1: The biggest source of knowledge at a conference is not from the speakers; it is within your fellow conference attendees!

Taking the approach of isolating yourself to get more out of the speakers is short-sighted. Yes, speakers can be great at illuminating something you hadn’t considered, they may be tremendous experts at certain subjects, and they can even be motivating. Please don’t dismiss the value of quality speakers: great speakers are essential to a great conference.

But think about all of the people in the audience. Many of them have probably discovered or experienced those things you came to the conference to figure out! Bill Nye once said, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.” Don’t dismiss connecting with others at your next conference or you’ll be missing out on a lot of additional knowledge and expertise!

“Easier said than done, Ken,” you’re thinking. That leads me to the second truth.

Truth 2: Connecting with others can be terrifying, but it is not difficult.

One event that intentionally helps its attendees with this is Tribe Conference. At the 2017 conference, Marsha Shandur described a simple way to start a conversation with someone you don’t know. Her strategy is simple:  ask “How was your week?” and listen. Once they complete their response, your follow-up question, if you need it, is “What was your favorite thing about the week?”. I used this approach with several people with good results. The questions are very disarming, and they show that you have a genuine interest in them. They can answer at whatever depth they are comfortable sharing at the moment, which makes those initial conversations even easier.

Another speaker at the conference, Pam Slim, shared her thoughts on connecting with others. She encouraged us to “Be the weirdo in the room.” It’s okay to be the odd one in a group. It is strangely self-empowering. If you already know you’re weird, then when someone looks at you like you are weird it’s no longer a problem. Own your idiosyncrasies!

Now that you understand that your fellow conference attendees have a great deal of knowledge, and you have a strategy for connecting with them, what is next? That brings us to Truth 3.

Truth 3: Helping others with their challenges is the path to getting some of your greatest problems solved.

So many of us attend conferences for selfish reasons: we want to become better versions of ourselves. We want more technical knowledge, we want to know how to solve our issues, and we want our lives to be simpler and easier. News flash: Your fellow attendees are there for the same reasons! And now that you know how to connect with them, start helping. I mentioned the Bill Nye quote in Truth 1, “Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t.”: now flip that: it is your turn to share what you know. Sean McCabe, in his Audience Building Course, encourages the question, “What are you struggling with right now?” That’s a big, bold question that might reveal someone’s giant, complex problem. But odds are, you’ll have some insight – or know someone else that does have that experience- that you can share with that person. You don’t solve the problem, that is theirs to manage, but you can surely help in some way even if it is just encouragement.

You can do this, just remember the three truths: recognize the value of your fellow attendee’s experiences and knowledge, connect with other conference goers with ease, and help wherever and whenever you can, and you will greatly improve your conference experience.