How to get the most out of conferences

Professional conferences are an unavoidable fact of startup life. However, it can become confusing to know where to focus your time, what sessions to attend or how many meetings are too many. All these questions may give you the sudden urge to stay home or worse, attend a conference and just wallow in the crowd.

Below are a few tips to help you get the most out of your next conference.

Pre-game:

1. Prepare, prepare, prepare

Although it may seem like a no-brainer, take some time to look over the conference agenda in order to set goals for what you’d like to learn. Check out the roster of speakers, who else from your network is coming and familiarize yourself with the conference space by downloading a copy of the map so you don’t get lost or miss important information.

2. Pre-introduce yourself

Don’t wait until you arrive at a conference to start networking. “Weeks before the start of a conference, create a priority wish list of people you would like to meet and reach out to them to set up a one-on-one,” says Neeti Passi, founder and CEO of mywedhelper. For a more informal approach, use social media to break the ice. “I always leverage social media, primarily Twitter, to reach out directly and suggest meeting up during a break or networking session — you’d be surprised how willing and eager people are to connect,” says Danielle Smith, community engagement lead at the DMZ.

3. Be equipped with the necessities

Whether it’s having enough business cards to shower over a crowd of people or the materials needed to give a demo, make sure you have all your entrepreneurial tools handy. With this being said, don’t badger every person you meet by trying to give them an on-the-spot demo of your product. However, if one of your meetings leads to a possible sales opportunity, it might be useful to be prepared to give a brief walkthrough.

On the field:

1. Put your phone down

You may be thinking: “But, I have so many emails waiting!” or “they told me to tweet about the event!” but you don’t want your phone to be a barrier to making connections. So, find moments when you can be hands-free like when you’re waiting for a session to begin or taking a break at the refreshment table, and give yourself a chance to strike up conversations with the other attendees around you.

2. Be strategic with your time

Most large conferences consist of multiple sessions running concurrently, and figuring out which session you should attend can make your head spin. “Your choices in where you spend your time should reflect both your educational and interpersonal goals,” says Mark Bailey, founder and CEO of Jobhubble. Sometimes, you’ll opt for a session because the subject interests you; at others, you’ll attend either to support the person who’s presenting or to meet the presenter or the other audience members.

3. Divide and conquer

If you’re attending a conference with members of your team, you should refrain from acting as if you and your coworkers are connected by the hip. If each of you attends the same sessions, you might as well have saved a few bucks and sent one person from your team instead. When you split up for sessions you’ll be able to maximize on how much you’re able to learn and how many more people you’re able to meet. Plan on meeting with your coworkers for lunch or dinner each day to regroup and share any updates.

4. Manage your existing connections

When attending a conference, it’s important to take the time to connect with people you already know. “Conferences are great for strengthening your current professional relationships as they provide an opportunity to maintain your network,” says Maggie Bergeron, co-founder and CEO of healthSwapp.

5. Participate in the conversation

Many conferences now have a dedicated hashtag. When appropriate, take a moment to tweet and join the discussion on social. “Tune into the relevant hashtags and follow relevant people and organizations to see what the conversation is around the conference, and use it as an opportunity to engage,” says Danielle Smith, the DMZ’s community engagement lead. “Weigh in on key sessions with your thoughts, quote notable pieces of information and be generous with your shout-outs for the things you find valuable.”

Post-game:

1. Follow up… before they forget you

It’s time to connect with people you met. This is best done immediately upon your return. Send LinkedIn requests with a personalized message while the conference is still fresh in everyone’s minds. From there, you can continue the conversation by sending them content or scheduling a demo.

2. Teach your team!

Don’t hoard the things you learned at a conference. The insights you gained at the conference are likely to be useful for your team. Whether it’s leading a session or writing a brief for your employees, sharing what you learned will help your colleagues do better work.