As I prepare to head off to a conference, I know what my plan is to make the most of it: play hard. I might be travelling across the country at my own expense to be at a meeting that is ostensibly for “professional development” but the real value doesn’t come from those. Besides, conference presentations are one of the worst ways to pick up information efficiently.
How many times have you been at a conference where you spent most of the time stuck buried in irrelevant details? It becomes clear that the presenter felt they had to spend the most time speaking about those details because they spent the most time working on that part. Ugh.
If you’re at a technical conference, I think you’re better off dipping in and out of conference sessions to get a sense for who might be a good communicator, who might be able to chat with you for five or 10 minutes at another time, or just to see who else is around. And it doesn’t hurt to be seen wandering around a conference. Face recognition counts for a lot when it comes to meeting new people at a conference so the more often you are glimpsed, the easier it will be to meet people later.
When you have the chance to chat with somebody but it means missing the session, have the conversation! A handful of two minute conversations are probably of more value to you in the longer term than any individual 20/30/60 minute presentation.
One of the best things you can do in those short conversations is to arrange to meet up for coffee, lunch, dinner, or drinks at some other time. If you can’t find a time, at least you have an anchor point for a follow-up phone call or email conversation after the meeting. At the end of the formal sessions, if you don’t have some social activity lined up, hang about the conference hotel lobby looking for people to go out with.
So what do you do if you’re at a conference and don’t know anybody? Do what you are there to do anyway: get to know people. Just start with anybody who you have any kind of excuse to chat with, whether it is related to work, or just that you’re both using the same type of computer in a hotel lounge area. Do that a few times and you’ll find somebody who you want to meet up with later. Don’t be shy!
Going to a single conference session might have a short term payoff if you really want/need to know about the topic being discussed. However, you can probably get the same information more efficiently through a one-on-one conversation. Otherwise, spend your time meeting people and enjoying social time with them. That will pay off much more in the longer term.