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Getting the Most Out of L&D Conferences

Bob Little 

September 26, 2014

is_15670067_jmalov_188The prospect of attending a conference can evoke mixed feelings.

You may like – or loathe – the venue. You may be excited at the thought of meeting colleagues and like-minded delegates whom you may not have seen for some time. Or you may be appalled at the prospect of having to be in the general vicinity of certain people.

The appeal of hearing world-class, articulate, knowledgeable, innovative speakers who are passionate about their subject has to be weighed against the prospect of experiencing organized “death by PowerPoint.” Then there are the perennial dilemmas of “dare I spare the time away from my desk?” and “what disaster might happen while I’m away?”

Surviving and Thriving

Assuming that, willingly or not, you’re going to attend a conference, it’s best to be armed with some techniques that will help you not just to survive the whole experience but also to thrive as a result of it.

Roger Mayo, director of the independent consultancy MT&D Learning Solutions and an experienced conference attendee – and organizer – draws a parallel between attending conferences and prospecting for gold. He says: “If you want to get the best out of the experience, you need to be equipped to find those few flakes of gold.

“Beforehand, understand what you want. Is it new insights and understanding; new contacts, meetings and potential business; or time off work? Decide where the few golden flakes will be. Plan how to get them. Then put that plan into action.

“At the event, keep asking yourself, ‘What can I use or see that could enhance what I offer my (in-house or external) customers?’ Log your answers on your phone, tablet or notebook – rather than going home with a plastic bag filled haphazardly with handouts, the odd freebie and faint memories that will soon mean nothing.”

Planning Ahead

Vaughan Waller, senior learning architect at Deloitte Learning Technologies and also well known as a regular session chairman at the Learning Technologies conference held in London each January, comments: “Along with those lightbulb moments, when you hear something that changes the way that you think, you also tend to remember the conference presentations that are awful. Sadly, regardless of a speaker’s reputation, it’s often pot luck whether you get one or the other.

“In these days of the multi-track conference, it’s a good idea to read the program at least five times; plan which session you’re going to attend – and then choose another one you like the look of but which is going on simultaneously. If the first session’s not as good as you’d hoped, you can always slip out and go to the second!”

Although a keen proponent of learning technologies, Vaughan is agnostic about Twitter back-channels and online sharing tools for conference delegates during a presentation. He says: “You can’t listen, type, read, and concentrate at the same time, so this sometimes leaves silence while the presenter wanders around or looks at his or her emails while the audience is posting comments online. Remember that you’re paying for those pauses in the action just as much as you’re paying for the presenter’s input.”

He adds: “When I go to a conference, I want the ‘sage on the stage’ to tell me everything he or she knows but, as a former consultant, I also realize that speakers want to tell you just enough so that you’ll hire them to work with your organization! But the best thing about going to conferences and exhibitions is the networking, bumping into old friends, and learning how others are tackling the same issues that you’re facing – and that’s well worth taking the time and trouble to attend these events.”

Dos and Don’ts

Katie Benson, HR business partner at the Royal Bank of Scotland, says: “There are four things you should never do – and five things that you should always do – when you attend conferences.”

Katie advises that you shouldn’t:

  • Just go along for the cookies – Pick your conferences wisely. Weigh up the opportunity cost of you not being in the office and make your absence from the office, attending the conference, worth your while – and worth your organization’s while.
  • Sit at the back with your head down – Use the event as a chance to learn some interesting new things and also as a wonderful opportunity to meet like-minded people. Networking in any guise has to be a great benefit.
  • Just think of your own organization – Be open minded and try to explore what other organizations or sectors do. Then take best practice back to your organization and try to implement it there, adapting it to your organization’s particular circumstances if necessary.
  • Dismiss options because of cost – Don’t switch off if you find that L&D interventions are being shared or discussed that are far outside your organization’s budget. There are always ways to tweak and streamline interventions to make them work. So always keep your ears open.

On the other hand, Katie advises that you should:

  • Do your homework – Prepare, ahead of the conference. In particular, you should think of some key areas, questions and/or problems where you’d like some insight and/or answers.
  • Approach the event with an “inquisitive mind” – Don’t attend in “listen only” mode. Undertake active listening throughout the event – and keep your mind open.
  • Take a pen and paper – Then, after each part of the conference, summarize salient points, actions and key takeaways.
  • At the end of the event, before rushing out the door, write a quick action plan of what you’re taking away from it – In particular, set down what you intend to do differently; what you’ll read; what you’ll change; what you’ll continue to do, and so on. Then, you should review this action plan in a month’s time, see what’s actually changed, and, in that way, assess the value of the event.
  • Share, share and share again – Cascade the great bits of what you’ve learned through the rest of your team “back at base.” This is a great way to share information and it also helps grow team members’ knowledge and understanding. Moreover, if they know what you know, they’re more likely to see your point of view in future.

What tips and strategies do you recommend to get the most from L&D conferences?

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