Making the Most of a Conference

While often the conversations are delightful and allow an opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, the question for me is: Did I optimize the time together to explore an aspect of another person's world view and knowledge or did we just have a pleasant conversation?
01/16/2015 11:03 am ET Updated Mar 18, 2015

I go to many conferences and meetings, both as a speaker and attendee. I am fortunate that I may get invited to such august gatherings as the World Economic Forum at Davos, Renaissance Weekend, Aspen Ideas Fest and the International Women's Forum annual meetings to name some. The invitations are not taken for granted and it is with gratitude that I attend. After traveling and often paying expenses to participate, it is important to get the most from being around incredibly interesting and accomplished other attendees--many certainly more accomplished than me.

However, I have this nagging feeling that I do not maximize my time and interactions. While often the conversations are delightful and allow an opportunity to catch up with friends and colleagues, the question for me is: Did I optimize the time together to explore an aspect of another person's world view and knowledge or did we just have a pleasant conversation? Did I get the most out of the organized programs that have been thoughtfully presented?

It intrigues me to know how others logistically and mentally get the most out of these unique programs and the bringing together of such unique and worldly individuals.

I have concluded that it is important to have some sort of OP--Organizing Principle.

Often a conference or meeting will have competing programs and I have to choose which ones to attend. The worst feeling is the one Millennials call FOMO--Fear of Missing Out. Did I choose the one that was fascinating, where the presenter was stellar or did I choose informative but boring? Nothing worse than having a colleague tell me they just went to the best session they have ever attended on "How the Brain Works" and I went to the one on "Retiring with a Solid Portfolio".

There are at least two types of gatherings. The first I refer to as Vertical Events. These are meetings that are in one professional area and the subject matter sessions go deep into the specific areas. Lawyers' bar association conventions might be an example. The second, I call Horizontal Events. These are the conferences that have subjects across many different disciplines from art panels, books talks, to political debate. So, depending upon the purpose and structure of the event, another dilemma presents itself. How to choose a program to attend? Should it be one that is within my professional expertise area where I can hear from experts I already admire and from whom I hope to learn the latest in research, or should I decide to go to a program completely outside of my knowledge comfort zone?

I often cannot resist the siren call of programs that feature issues of women's leadership or have women whom I know on the panels. And yet I can fantasize that there would have been greater incremental knowledge and expanded world view gained by attending the Music and the Cosmos lecture. I ask people about their OP to see what other options there might be. One man said he never goes to lectures where someone has written a book about the lecture because he knows he can always read the book at some point. I do pretty much the opposite since I may never get around to reading the book.

One rule that sometimes helps me decide is the Rule of Non Re-occurring Events.

If I have to choose between a reoccurring event and a non-reoccurring event, always choose the non-reoccurring one. (I have a similar food rule, the Rule of Crème Brule. If Crème Brule is on the menu I must order it. If it is not, I can choose not to have dessert).

Additionally, it is helpful to have an OQ--Operating Question.

This means going beyond the "How are you and what are you up to" question. The assumption is that there is a window of 3-5 minutes talk time with any particular person I sit next to, meet in the buffet line, or have some other random connection. The idea is to have one overarching theme to any conversation. Since the question is posed consistently to those random mélange of characters I meet, it can include the range of perspectives from CEO to poet to dentist. One year I asked many whether courage can be taught. It was particularly poignant when I was able to ask it of Sully Sullenberger of the U.S. Air heroism landing while we both waited for the bartender to get our drinks. His reply incidentally was that courage itself may not be taught, but continual practice in the face of potential danger can be taught through practice.

I do suggest you ease into the OQ with an abbreviated form of How are You initially so you don't scare people away with your clumsy social skills.

So my question to you is how do you get the most out of a conference? What are your Operating Principle and Operating Questions? Please do let me know so I can use it the next time I am in the buffet line.