First, you should make a thoughtful decision by identifying the best events through relevant professional associations and through following your industry’s thought leaders online. Shortly after you sign up, the real work begins. Write down 2-3 goals you have for your attendance, including specific skills or information you want to acquire and people with whom you want to network.
Set Up Advance Meetups
Keeping in mind that one-on-one, in person discussions are often more valuable than official sessions, review the attendee list and, in advance, set up meetings with the people you want to talk to. Don’t rely on chance encounters because they may not happen and you don’t want to leave the event with a major goal unachieved.
You should also be prepared for the question of what you do (or are trying to do) – since at a conference you will be asked at least 100 times. Be able to communicate this clearly in 30 seconds, and don’t forget to include why people should care about your work. When you meet a person of interest, get his contact information and follow up with him no later than three days after the event.
Participate As Appropriate
Don’t just be a passive observer. Jot down questions as they come into your mind, and raise them at a relevant time. Share your experiences and welcome commentary from others. In a public setting, provide input selectively. There is such a thing as too much participation, and you don’t want to be seen as taking over the event.
Write Notes and Action Items
Not only will this assist you in soaking up all that the conference has to offer, but it will keep information fresh in your mind when you return home so that you can follow up with the right people. If you don’t have as much time as you’d like during the conference, use waiting time in the airport to crystallize your thoughts.
Finally, take care of your body. Wear shoes that are appropriate for walking a few miles and layers so that you can withstand the infamous temperature variations in conference rooms. Eat regular meals, stay hydrated, and schedule a nap in the afternoon if it means that you’ll be fresh for important after-hours networking events.