Infographic: How to conference
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Infographic: How to conference

Maximize your time at your next conference with these tips from MIT experts.

By Meredith Somers  |  June 4, 2018

howtoconferenceInfographic: Timm Fair

Conferences are a part of professional development, but as sure as the coffee runs out, or the event hall thermostat goes rogue, conferences can also be a productivity black hole.

MIT Sloan senior lecturer Robert Pozen said that even before planning your agenda for a conference, you should seriously consider whether or not it’s worth your time.

“[It] goes back to what your priorities and goals are,” Pozen said. “In your professional life, you’ve got to be clear about goals and priorities. A conference is just one of many decisions.”

Is this the second or third time you’ll be attending a certain conference? How much of the content has changed? Is it worth going again? Also consider the time and cost.

Once you decide on attending a conference, set goals for the event and make a personalized agenda based on those goals.

“It depends on who you are and where you’re at in your career,” said MIT Sloan lecturer Ben Shields, and faculty adviser for the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “If you are an entrepreneur and at this moment in time it’s about finding potential investors, collaborators, vendors, customers, you’re going to want to be in the hallways.”

If you’re just there to learn, don’t overwhelm yourself trying to cram every session into your personal agenda. If you’re attending the conference with a friend or colleague, divide and conquer — and share notes.

That means you’ve got to be an active note taker, Shields said. Consider writing a conference recap. Share it with colleagues, or better yet, new networking connections.

“It forces you to crystalize the experience and it could be all based on the conference content, or it could be on the interesting conversations that you had while you were networking,” Shields said.

Many conferences today offer recordings of panels, so it’s possible to hit the “save for later” button, Shields said, for lower-priority content.

Shields also advised against trying to do your full-time job while engaging in the conference.

“Part of this is just the reality of the workplace,” Shields said. “People think they can get work done and go to the conference at the same time. My sense is that’s a really hard thing to do.”

The same goes for managers who expect their employees to do their regular jobs while they are attending a conference. If you want to help your employees develop their knowledge, let them learn.

Pozen said it’s also smart to have an exit strategy at a conference.

“Sometimes you go to a session and you think it’s going to be really good, but it’s not,” Pozen said. “You have to be flexible and also try to make intelligent decisions in advance. Perhaps bring work with you that you can do if a majority of the sessions you’re attending are bad.”

As for that networking cocktail hour, Shields said it can be an option.

"Let’s say there are five people that you saw who were attending the conference that you have to connect with," Shields said. "You’ve already connected with four of them, you know that that fifth person is probably going to be at the reception. Then go — that will be your opportunity to achieve your goal to connect with the five people that you targeted."