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Getting the most out of conferences

Thornton May | Feb. 17, 2016
The best thing about conferences is that they are a locus for really smart people converging on one topic

My friend and mentor, Moshe Rubinstein, one of the world’s leading experts on creative problem-solving, believes that conversation between smart people is the fastest and most affordable path to wisdom. Are you having the right kinds of conversations with the right kinds of people? 

I see conferences as an important mechanism for expanding the universe of smart people you can have conversations with. In fact, most conference organizers have their value proposition all wrong. The primary benefit of attendance lies not in listening to best-selling keynoters. Does one really have to fly eight hours and spend thousands of dollars for information that could be collected simply by reading a book, listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube video? No, but by attending a conference, you gain the benefit of those outside-the-lecture-hall conversations with smart people working hard on the same kinds of problems you are. 

Unfortunately, the way most conferences are designed today, the only places you can meet your peers are in the bathroom or during the overly compressed “feeding times.” Neither is the optimal venue for meaningful experience exchange or executive development. 

Before booking any conference, sit down and enumerate your “no-knows” — the things you don’t know and want to get smart about. With these in hand, do some research to find out who the smartest people are in those areas. Where do they hang out? Is there a conference focused on this topic? Is it designed to maximize conversation between attendees, or is it just a bunch of talking heads and sales pitches by sponsoring vendors? 

If the latter, you may want to design a “pop-up guerrilla” conference that coincides with the official conference. You don’t even have to attend the official conference; you just use it as a resource that can draw the people you most want to talk with to the same place. The guerrilla conference is really just a shared space — a dinner, a lunch, a workshop or a party — adjacent to the official conference.  

After any conference, you should capture the knowledge you’ve collected so you can apply it. Write down the names of people you met, what you learned and what you are going to do next. Putting it all down on paper (or in a spreadsheet) will help you see at a glance how valuable your travel was.


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