While it looks increasingly likely that, in the not-too-distant future, we’ll be gathering for in-person conferences again, we aren’t there quite yet. In the meantime, the virtual conference will have to do it’s best to replicate that experience. And while sitting at your office computer alone and then having an in-home happy hour isn’t quite the same as sitting with colleagues in a meeting room and then hitting the hotel lobby bar, you can still get a lot of value from a virtual conference if you have the right mindset and keep some of important points in mind.
First and foremost, and perhaps the most important point to establish: You can’t make the most of your virtual conference experience if you’re too distracted. So, close your email. Silence your alerts. Log out of your messaging platform. Close any programs other than those needed to attend the event. Keep whatever device you’re using to attend the event as clear and clutter-free as possible.
Once your digital space is clear of clutter and free of distractions, do the same for your physical space. Take any work-in-progress off of your desk. Banish any to-do lists to the back of the monitor. Close your office door. Find a space away from your usual workstation that will allow you to focus. And, most importantly, remove the biggest and worst distraction of all: your phone. Put it on silent. Put it away. Better yet, put it on silent and put it away! You can always leave an outgoing voicemail or auto response message (this works for email and messaging too) letting people know that you’re not intentionally ignoring them, you’re taking advantage of an important professional development opportunity by attending the (insert name here) conference, and you’ll be happy to get back to them as soon as you’re available.
Next, define what it is, specifically, you hope to gain from attending that particular conference, and come up with a game plan for exactly how you’ll go about doing that. Decide in advance which topics and which sessions most pique your interest. Research some of the speakers. Think about the questions you might have for them, or about how the topics they plan to cover will benefit you. A conference is, after all, an opportunity to gain insight and learn from others in your industry. Take every advantage of that opportunity.
Perhaps the best way to make sure you are taking full advantage of conference growth and development opportunities is to use a SMART system to build yourself a learning plan. To get started, answer again that earlier question: What specifically did I hope to gain or achieve by attending this conference? Add to it a way to Measure that, such as: What are some clear benchmarks I can use to measure my increase in knowledge, skill, or ability? Next, decide what exactly you’ll do to take Action by answering: How will I apply what I learn about this topic to my everyday life? Then, consider why that conference is Relevant to you by answering: How will attending make me a better contributor to my team or company? Lastly, determine the Timeliness of your plan of action by asking: When can I start applying what I’ve learned from this conference?
Also, think about what persistent problems you might be facing, and how attending that conference might help you find solutions to those problems. Look for opportunities to make quality connections with potential vendors who can help. Consider the virtual trade show, which is a prominent feature of many online conferences. This format is a great way to connect one-on-one, and to spend some real quality time together talking about products and solutions, without having to compete with a lot of background noise and other people for attention. In many ways, the virtual conference trade show is like starting with a first meeting, instead of having to generate a lead and schedule an appointment.
Finally, a virtual conference, like any in-person conference, is a chance to build and leverage your professional network. And while, yes, you won’t have the same informal networking opportunities you would in person. You won’t be able to chat each other up in the hallways for example, but you will still have plenty of opportunity for networking. For one, leverage the power of social media to make connections. In many ways, this is superior to just handing out business cards. Don’t just add someone as a connection, either; do something to engage with them. Ask them some questions. Find out what they thought about the conference. Get their reaction to something a speaker said. Find out what plan they have for applying some of the lessons. Share yours. Ask if they have any ideas for solving a problem you’re facing at work. Most people love being asked for their opinion or to share their wisdom. Do something that will generate a back-and-forth conversation, and ultimately a connection, just like you would in person.
Yes, for many, a virtual conference isn’t going to be quite the same experience as an in-person event. The format certainly has its drawbacks, but it also has its many advantages. Make the most of those advantages by avoiding distractions, building a learning plan, looking for opportunities to make connections, and finding ways to leverage your new network. Who knows, you might not even miss that lobby bar after all!