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Project15 : Getting the most out of your conference experience

Recently I was lucky enough to attend Project15 – a 1 1/2 day conference focused around entrepreneurs going global and thinking differently. In between a very impressive line up of speakers and meeting lots of new people in the industry – it got me thinking more about conferences in general. In today’s digital age, where we can gather information and connect with others online, how do we make sure conferences are still a valuable and affordable experience for everyone involved?

For me it seems like a balancing act. There’s no doubt that the networking opportunity is massive, and that you get to solely focus in on something you’re passionate about. You’ll find your thinking is expanded and hopefully inspired, while your ideas are either validated or challenged (sometimes both). Perhaps the biggest drawcard is that you gain access to people that individually you may never have had the chance to meet. But then there’s the flip side – you’ve got to consider the ticket prices and the time your staff spend out of action while they attend. It can be quite difficult to figure out how relevant and applicable the conference will be to your business, and even harder to know if the advice will be up to date in today’s fast moving tech savvy world.

I’ve been to some awesome conferences and some NOT so awesome conferences. Combining this with my penchant to over-analyse most things, I’ve put together a bit of a guide for the key elements I think are required to have a rad day out at a conference.

How to put on a great conference:

  • Stating the obvious here – but have a great line up of speakers. If you can attract the best people who have a range of different opinions and approaches, your event will rock. For me at Project15, these superstars were David Schiff from Made and James Whittaker from Microsoft – they just oozed energy and widely challenged the audience to think differently.

  • Have lots of information available leading up to the event including who should attend and why, full speaker profiles and timetables. This allows attendees to form accurate expectations on what to expect before they buy a ticket.

  • Speaking of tickets, ensure your prices are in line with your target market. If you’re trying to attract startups and entrepreneurs, don’t price them out with a cost they can’t justify.

  • Afternoon wake up calls – Project15 smashed this. After lunch, they had King Homeboy perform his incredible beatboxing skills and share his story. This was the perfect ‘something different’ the crowd needed to get back into a jam packed afternoon of speakers.

  • Have dedicated networking opportunities – If your only chance for networking is also your only chance to catch up on emails and eat something, meeting new people may not feel like your first priority. Try to include curated networking sessions within the timetable and encourage interaction through activities that accommodate all personality types.

  • Provide ways that the audience can understand who else is in the room. Dr Claire McGowan from Soda Inc. ran awesome interactive polls throughout her presentation. One of these simply had us all identify who we were (investors, entrepreneurs, employees, students etc) which was actually the first look we had at this helpful information.

  • Conferences give you a huge amount of new information to absorb, so you’ve got to provide easy takeaways and summaries. It was exceptionally helpful having AUT’s Ben Kenobi run us through his key highlights at the end of day one, as well as sharing this Storify board he’d created.

How to Get the Most Value out of a Conference:

  • Go by yourself. Just like travelling, going alone makes you break out of your comfort zone and socialise more. As well as being cost effective, it means that only one person is out of the office during the conference. Make sure you take some notes so that you can share these with your teammates when you return. If the conference allows, you could also consider sharing one ticket between your team so that the right person can attend the most relevant sessions.  

  • Ensure your tablet or phone is fully charged so you can jump in on the social media action. Joining in the online conversation can add a whole other dimension to your experience. This was definitely true at Project15 and I connected with people I didn’t even physically lay eyes on.

  • Do your research on the speakers, know who you want to see and who you don’t need to see before the day of the event. Conferences can be overwhelming and mind boggling, so consider even skipping a session so that you can be better prepared for your top picks. Pre-planning some questions for your favourite speaker isn’t a bad idea either, especially if you have the tendency to chicken out and miss the opportunity.  

  • Eat healthy things. I stupidly had 3 muffins for breakfast on day two and unsurprisingly they did nothing for my concentration levels by about 11am. Stick with good brain food, so you can stay alert.

  • Stay focused. Create a simple template to fill out for your notes/learnings for each speaker. This will keep you on track, especially towards the end of the day. This is also a really helpful tool to provide if you’re sending a staff member along who will be reporting back to the team later.

And finally, DEFINITELY don’t leave early because you’ll miss that final business card draw where (for the first time in your entire life) your name actually gets called out. I wasn’t there, so I didn’t get the snazzy Samsung phone that was the prize… Total face palm moment.