I’ve attended hundreds of conferences and spoken at dozens of them over the years. While most people complain that they don’t get always the value they’d like from conferences, I usually do. The job I have now as a Partner at First Round Capital and many of my business relationships can be directly attributed to conferences where I’ve met the right people and connected in the right way. So here it is, from the basics to more advanced tips, my best advice on How To Work A Conference (with a particular Business Development focus on those that involve speakers and an audience, and less about massive trade shows like CES.)
1) The goal of a conference is to LEARN and to CONNECT with people. To start, that means actively listening and learning from your seat in the audience. When connecting with people, the goal is not to tell your life story, or present your 50 page business plan at the first handshake, or to immediately hand over your business card. The goal is to make a good impression, to learn something about and/or show you know something about the other person, and get permission to follow up. The goal of a conference is to learn and connect.
2) Read up on all the speakers – You should have an idea what you’d say ask to each if you get the chance to say hello. For me, right about now I’m pouring over the TED 2013 program guide.
3) Read up on all the attendees– this list is often a harder list to get, but well worth it if you can. For this is one you might have to “socially engineer” it from the conference organizers, or a good alternative angle is to ask someone you know who is a sponsor, otherwise try to get a list at the event from the registration desk. The basic idea is to circle/mark the people you want to talk to, and have an idea of what you’ll say. Great conferences, including TED, are now sharing attendee lists in advance to help everyone better connect.
4) Get there early. Show up early, but at least show up on time. I know someone who started a 30-year business relationship with Peter Drucker because they both showed up on time for a conference and were the first and only ones in the room.
5) Sit in the Front Row. There is ALWAYS a seat in the front row, and you should walk right up to the front and take it. If you arrive late, you should walk past all the people standing around the wall in the back barely listening and head right up to the front. Sitting up there forces you to pay attention and makes you less likely to get buried in your iPhone. Related bonus tips: In the age of social media almost anyone can be considered Press, and a Reserved seat might as well be reserved for you. And the Front Row technique also works in church and other venues.
6) Don’t get buried in your iPhone – Be in the present, and be actively looking for opportunities to connect with people – that’s the reason you’re there.
7) Stand where people pass by – there is usually an obvious choke point of people, where every speaker and attendee will converge or pass through, and it’s a good place to stand to get to meet the people you want to connect with. It might be the registration desk, it might be the entrance to the main room – but you have to stand/chat somewhere and that’s as good a place as any. I’ve heard some people like to stake out a spot in front of the bathrooms, but that’s going a bit too far in my book. Some people make an art of this like Yossi Vardi – I’ve seen him at lots of conferences but never in the audience – he lives in the lobby.
8) To connect with speakers, walking up to the podium after their talk can work but has low probability of a quality connection. For a more advanced approach, look for the line between the green room or the A/V setup area and the stage – that can be a better place to meet speakers.
9) Asking a question from the audience – basic. Most conference sessions have a Q&A section at the end, and most of the time there is silence for a few moments before the first question. Assume there will be Q&A and have a great question ready, and state your name and company so that other attendees know you’re there too.
10) Asking a question from the audience – advanced. This is one where you might think out a question far in advance that you’d like to get the answer to in a public venue. I did that here at AllThingsD with Steve Jobs, and while my question had a point of view it was designed to be generic, but it got more specific than I anticipated in the response. Also be ready with a follow up to defend your point if necessary.
Those are my best ideas – I’d love to hear about yours in the comments. Good luck at your next conference!