Getting the Most Out of a Conference

by Janelle Hail

You were excited to attend a conference, filled an extra luggage with tons of material, and attended so many sessions that you have brain overload. Now that you are home, you are tired, overwhelmed with too much stuff, and you toss the stack of papers in the corner, hoping to get around to sorting your notes and material when you have time. Only you never have time because you have more pressing things to do, and the most immediate things get first attention. As a conference attendee who has attended dozens of conferences for many years, I finally designed an organized action plan that will energize and revitalize the enthusiasm you had when you first arrived at the conference.

Step #1 Advance Planning

Familiarize yourself with the conference. Go online and run off all details of the conference to set up a list of sessions you wish to attend. Look at last year's conference information and order some of the tapes/CDs to acquaint yourself with the best speakers that pertain to your topics of interest. Observe who returns each year as speakers. Those are the tried and tested ones whom everyone loves to hear. If the current year's speakers have books, go to the bookstore and find out if they pique your interest. Some Web sites offer the names of attendees from last year. If you have access to their e-mail addresses, contact them and ask which sessions were the most valuable to them. By the time you get to the conference, you will be in control of what course of action you want to take.

Step #2 What to Take

Travel as light as possible, but don't forget to throw in an umbrella and raincoat, for changing weather. It's a help to get the weather forecast on your computer before you leave so you don't have to second-guess the weather man. If you can take your computer, it will be helpful in transcribing your notes while you can still decipher them. Be sure to take a supply of medications should you run into a little difficulty. A small flashlight in your travel bag can come in handy in unusual circumstances. Take a bottle of water on the plane. It will help with jet lag. And drink water all during the conference instead of coffee and sodas. This will keep your energy level up. Your mind gets stimulated at a conference, so pack a journal to write your thoughts. Throw in a few energy bars for emergency, and two pair of comfortable shoes. Alternate wearing the shoes from one day to the next and your feet will say thank you. Did I say travel light?

Step #3 Travel Day

Arrive at the conference a day early, if possible, to recover from jet lag and to get an early-morning start on the conference the next day. Upon arrival, settle into your room as soon as possible. Get the unpleasant task of unpacking over quickly. Bring your own travel hangers so you can hang up all your clothes, to avoid wrinkles. Strike out on a mission to acquaint yourself with your surroundings. Pick up your registration packet and identify the rooms where meetings will be held. Also, find nearby restaurants, pharmacy, shopping, sightseeing points and other places of interest for your off-time and in case you want a diversion from conference activities. I have heard so many conference attendees say on the last day, "Oh, I didn't know that place was so nearby."

Step #4 First Day of Conference

Make a beeline to the freebee table to collect everything you even think may be of interest. Before leaving the conference, you can read through everything you collected, sort and toss without having to take everything home. Take some Post-it notes to attach to key information and a yellow highlighter to capture key thoughts. Check out the book table early for books you know you want to take home and pick them up right away so you have a good selection. Make careful notes of tapes/CDs you want to purchase. These material will give you take-home value that will last for a long time. Be prepared to allocate some of your spending money for them. It may be easier to have this material mailed to you instead of carrying it home in an extra suitcase since the airlines now limit carry-on and bags you check. And it will save you the wear and tear of lugging extra luggage.

Step #5 How To Take Notes and What To Do with Them

Write your notes on the right side of a spiral binder and reserve the left side for your to-do list. Jot things on your to-do list as your mind is stimulated by notetaking. At the end of each day or near the end of the last day of the conference, accumulate your to-do lists into one compact one, assigning an A list for most urgent short-term projects, B list for important short-term projects, C list for research, D list for long-term projects. By the time you get home, you have a complete plan of action that requires little brain power to activate. Ah, the pleasure of marking things off your lists.

Step #6 Take a Break

The biggest problem you may face at a conference is trying to attend every session from early morning to late at night. It is impossible to pack it all in. Don't hesitate to take breaks. If you can, stay at the hotel that sponsors the conference. When you hit a lull in your energy level, excuse yourself for an hour. Go to your room, take a hot bath (yes, in the middle of the day even though you had one that morning), get undressed and take a power nap. This amazing time of refreshing will refuel you for several hours beyond your normal limit. Take walks outside, if possible. Go to the hotel health club daily. Anything to keep your body revived. Have some quiet time alone for reflecting each day.

The Conference Is Over

What a satisfying feeling to end the conference knowing that you have increased your skills and source of knowledge. You can now return home refreshed mentally, physically, and spiritually. And you have a plan of action that can immediately propel you forward.

About the Author

Janelle Hail is an award-winning freelance writer and speaker. She is founder and CEO of the National Breast Cancer Foundation, an organization dedicated to saving lives through breast cancer education and providing free mammograms for under-served women. Her cutting-edge approach to health and life-balance has positioned the National Breast Cancer Foundation as one of America's leading breast cancer nonprofit foundations. You may contact her through her Web site at www.nationalbreastcancer.org.

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