How to survive (and thrive at) conferences


Expert speakers. Valuable workshops. Sparkling parties with industry influencers. Meeting your social network in real life. These are just a few advantages of going to conferences. As fun as they are, they can also be overwhelming.

I just returned from a marathon time at the South by South West (SXSW) music, film and interactive conference and am repacking my bag for Craftcation next week.

I went to SXSW because I was speaking there. Knowing that I had to prepare talks and work out presentations with my co-panelists gave me a focus that allowed me to plan the rest of my time.  SXSW is really an all-encompassing event which includes more conference sessions, meet ups, parties, and workshops than you could possibly go to. Thanks to some careful planning, and a little luck, I got through the full ten days of SXSW without collapsing from fatigue, though I did start to lose my voice from talking so much.

I wanted to share my conference survival strategy with you so that as you seek resources and networking opportunities to build your businesses and make the most of your time.

Make a goal for the conference

What is your motivation for going? Set one or two specific, measurable goals for your time at the conference.  Need a little goal setting assistance? Check out my post on how to create smart goals. What do you want to come away with? A certain number of new business leads? A new skill? Meetings with people in your network you don’t often see in person? Making concrete goals will help focus your attention and ensure you have a valuable conference experience, even if you don’t get to do everything you plan.

Plan ahead

Look at the schedule and research the presenters. Is there someone presenting that you admire and finally get to meet in person? Is there an expert speaking on a particular issue or skill area you are working to strengthen? When you plan your schedule you can leave for the conference feeling prepared and relaxed.

Alert your networks

Find out who else in your network is planning to go. Before you leave for the conference,  make plans with them to meet up during the conference. That will ensure you have the opportunity to strengthen relationships and process what you are experiencing with people you trust. Even if it’s just a quick coffee it can be a chance to recharge. I felt like half of Brooklyn was in Austin for SXSW and it was a nice chance to catch up with people I admire who I don’t often have a chance to cross paths with, even though we live in the same city. Back in NYC, SXSW is a shared experience we can use as a touchstone to keep building our working relationship.

Talk to new people!

It sounds obvious – we go to conferences to learn new things, meet new people, and network. But how often have you found yourself at a conference staring at your smart phone, tweeting or Instagramming the proceedings instead of actually engaging with the people there. Challenge yourself to introduce yourself to new people, whether people sitting near you in a talk or even in line for coffee. Valuable networking doesn’t just take place in prescribed times, but throughout the event.

Be open to serendipity and changes of plans. Let go of your “Fear of Missing Out.”

Fear of Missing Out or “FOMO” was a buzzword at SXSW. With so many interesting people and activities at a conference it can be easy to feel like unless you go to everything you will miss out on an important moment, activity or connection. The truth is, you can’t plan for everything and new opportunities will arise. At the opening talk for this year’s SXSW Interactive conference, Hugh Forrest, the head of SXSW, said that the unexpected, engaging conversation you have with someone at a conference is the right thing for you to be doing at that moment. If serendipity arises, embrace it and let your carefully scheduled plans go. At SXSW I made it to only half of the things I planned to go to, but felt inspired and relaxed instead of stressed.

Pack your bag accordingly.

It sounds silly, but each day I left the house for SXSW I felt I had to be ready for anything: I was sure to wear comfortable shoes and have a scarf or jacket in case the weather turned. I also packed a water bottle, a stack of business cards, my phone charger, sunglasses, makeup and hand lotion, my notebook and some KIND bars in case I didn’t have time to grab lunch. Having the essentials you need enables you to feel comfortable, confident and to focus on the conference, not on the fact you are so thirsty, hungry or going blind from the bright sun.

What conferences are you planning to attend this year? What motivates you to go and what do you hope to get out of your time there?  Also, for all headed to Craftcation, I look forward to seeing you for my budgeting and goal setting workshops!


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