Dear Life Matters,

I will be attending a professional conference next month and am excited about the chance to enhance my skills and learn more about future trends facing my field. Despite my excitement, this will be the first time I have attended an event of this nature so I have no idea what to do. Are there any “dos” or “don’ts” or steps that will help me?

Signed,

Amateur Attendee

Dear Amateur,

Congratulations on your decision to attend a professional conference in your industry. Spending time building your professional network and developing yourself in your field are key steps towards a successful future. Many business professionals spend time networking with potential clients or those that might bring them business, but some forget about the value of networking with colleagues who can be useful sources of support, job leads, business solutions and professional expertise. Leveraging this network and building powerful connections with colleagues across the field can have great benefits for your personal and professional growth.

Making the most of your professional conference starts with arriving prepared. Before you leave make sure that you have reviewed the conference website so you are aware of the sessions and workshops being offered. Having a game plan or strategy before the conference will help you to take advantage of all the different programs being offered. You might also find it useful to review the biographies and backgrounds of presenters to develop effective questions and determine ways to apply their expertise to benefit your development. You will also want to make sure that you arrive at the conference prepared with plenty of business cards to exchange with the new professionals you meet.

While the educational workshops are designed to increase your professional skills, make sure that you do not limit your conference participation just to the scheduled sessions. Many conferences will build in networking activities to help you meet other attendees, however, even if this time is not built into the schedule it is important that you make time to meet other professionals. Expanding your network is key to enhancing your professional career. Talking with others who work in your field can be a great way to learn about emerging trends, best practices, innovative solutions to ongoing problems and new resources. In addition, knowing others in your field who work at other companies can be a great way to find out about job openings and advancement opportunities.

Although I mentioned that it’s important to bring your business cards, keep in mind that it is not enough just to introduce yourself to someone at a conference and exchange business cards. You must make steps to create and maintain the connection. Soon after the conference consider following up with the professional to mention how much you enjoyed meeting them and your interest in remaining in touch. If the professional provided you with resource suggestions, business solutions or general guidance, consider reaching out once you have followed their recommendation. People love knowing that others have followed their advice and this can be a genuine way to keep in touch with the new associate. Connecting on LinkedIn can be a helpful way to keep them in your mind through status updates and also keep on top of changes that might happen in their professional journey.

Professional conferences often try to pack a lot of activity into a short amount of time and as a result it can be overwhelming to do everything. Commit yourself to taking notes in order to increase your absorption of the new material. Try not to just focus on the facts being presented but also on the ideas that the workshops spark that directly relate to your daily work. You may find it helpful to dedicate some time on the trip home to reflect on your notes and make a list of key takeaways and action steps to apply the new knowledge you have gained.

Finally, once you get back to the office consider sharing key discoveries with your colleagues. If there is a new resource you discover or a solution to a problem your team has been facing, sharing that information with your team can be a great way to reinforce the value of professional conferences with your colleagues and superiors. Demonstrating the importance of the conference and the information you received may lead to additional opportunities for you to attend future programs.

KATRINA DAVY, M.A., Ed.M, is a professional career counselor who has worked in university and private settings. She holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia universities. Visit her online at www.kdcareer.com. Send your questions to newshrink@gmail.com. All questions are kept anonymous; let us help you with your life matters!