Why you should spend more time at the bar when attending your next conference...

The best part of attending a professional development conference is often not what you learn in the classroom; it's what you learn on the bus and at the bar.  And I say that with all sincerity!

I recently returned from a national marketing conference where I was asked to sit on a mobile marketing panel.  It was an excellent three days.  I learned as much from the people in my session as I hope they learned from me.

There were several very good workshops where I gleaned some useful information that will help me as I continue to try to improve my organization's marketing strategies and enhance my personal knowledge.

However, as I was reflecting on the event during the plane ride home, I was looking at the takeaway action steps that I considered the highest priorities.  I discovered that all of them except one came from a conversation I had with someone...outside the classroom.  One came during a conversation at the bar, one came from a conversation on a bus ride to a site visit, one came over a cup of coffee in between sessions, and one came from someone who was sitting in my session trying to learn from ME!

I'm not dismissing the value of the information I gathered at the workshops and panel discussions.  There was some great idea sharing and thought provoking content.  However, the broader professional development sessions generally tend to center more on philosophical or conceptual ideas.  Often times they are case studies with presenters explaining "what and why" they did something, but not "how".  And sometimes sessions will focus on data sharing, that while interesting, isn't adequately translated into an action plan.

But the casual conversations with peers, outside a formal setting, often tend to generate organic, actionable ideas that result from shared challenges.  Sometimes the person I spoke with already had a solution that I thought would work for us.  Other times, our impromptu brainstorming resulted in a strategy that we both thought might work for each of us independently or by leveraging our combined assets.

Why?  Because typically these conversations are just that...conversations!  Both parties are listening, speaking and debating.  In a professional workshop, everyone in the room but the presenter/s is listening, while only one person is speaking.  It's not a two way dialogue. Yes, there is often time for Q & A at the end of a session, but sharing that opportunity with 20 or 30 other people doesn't really allow for a meaningful dialogue. 

Here is an idea that conference planners may choose to adopt in the future:  Allow for one on one time with every presenter.  Schedule it almost like a speed networking session but for longer periods of time (perhaps 15 minutes).  Attendees can register for individual consultations during the conference.  While it may seem unreasonable to expect a speaker to spend an entire day in one on one sessions with guests, some may actually appreciate it, as they are often businesses using these speaking opportunities for prospecting.  For those that don't wish to participate, make it optional.  Having spoken at many conferences, my guess is that most presenters will be willing to give up a couple of hours.  The majority of attendees won't take advantage of the opportunity anyway.  But for those who do; it will be a tremendous benefit.

Next time you attend a conference, don't judge the overall value based solely on what you learn sitting in a meeting room.  Judge it based on what you learn both inside AND outside the meeting rooms.  I think you'll find the conference to be more beneficial than expected.
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