I just returned home from a professional national conference catered to my career in student affairs in higher education. This was my third time attending the conference and I must say, it is different every year. National conferences in your career field can be exciting, overwhelming, and insightful. Exciting because you get to see colleagues from across the nation presenting and hosting workshops in their specific areas of expertise. Friends you may have from other companies (institutions of higher education in my case) are there and you have a support group to kick it with and talk to while you are navigating the large conference. Overwhelming because there’s typically thousands of people at national conferences. There’s so many activities to choose from and people who you probably need to meet. For me, I have slight anxiety, so when I’m around too many people for too long, I start to panic. Also, because everyone knows someone, you always have to be cognizant of what you do and say when you are around people you don’t know. You never know who will remember you and could potentially hinder you from getting another job. On the positive side of that, start networking and allowing people to get to know you is also as important. Lastly, conferences are insightful because you can see who are in those leadership positions that you one day want to be in. You can also learn new practices that colleagues are doing and take back some tangible skills for your own positions.
If you’re not ready to go to a national conference, going to conferences at the regional or state level are just as beneficial. This post will offer some ways to tackle professional conferences, positively.
Go ahead and get you some business attire: Most conferences you attend, you’ll notice that mostly everyone has on business attire clothing or business casual clothes. We have this mindset that professionalism is defined by whether you wear a suit and tie, a nice blouse with slacks, a business dress, etc. Don’t get me wrong, I am an advocate for being your authentic self. You can still be authentic in your business attire for conferences.
But Tristen, buying a suit or a nice dress costs so much. How will I afford to get clothes and I have to pay for the conference too?
That’s okay. Buying business clothes doesn’t have to break your bank or empty your pockets. I am an advocate for thrift stores. I’ve found some cute tops and slacks and dresses at thrift stores and you could not tell that they were from a thrift store. The two dresses I wore this past conference, I got from Target for less than $15. There are options out there. I also recommend asking someone you are close to if they could lend you something to wear. When it comes to saving money, I am all about options. I have no problem borrowing a shirt from a friend or raiding my mother’s closet when I go to my parents’ house. Treat everyday of your conference as if you were interviewing for a job with your clothing.
Put those business cards in your wallet or pocketbook: Because you are going to be connecting with many different people, it would behoove you to carry some business cards with you. The purpose of business cards is two-fold: 1.) to show off your fancy business cards from your job and 2.) to follow up with people after the conference to continue the connections you made with people. If you are one who is likely to forget what session you met someone in, it is okay to write something on their card that you collect from them to help jog your memory.
One year, I went to a conference and was looking for some Black women to be my mentor in the field. I found about three and I wrote where I met them at so when I emailed them they remembered who I was. I would start an email by saying: Hello (Insert person’s name here). My name is Tristen Johnson and I met you at xyz conference at your session titled xyz. I wanted to follow up with you to see if you would be available to chat via phone on xyz day. This gives the people context on where they met you and to be honest, it will jog their memory, too.
Take Notes: When you attend conferences, you are going to go to multiple presentations about innovative topics or best practices that you could potentially use for your company or work environment. Bring something to write with and write on. Presenters love to see their audience engaged by notetaking and are more often than not willing to talk with you after their presentation to answer any questions you may have. These are also great people to connect with and slide your business cards to. You never know what type of collaborative efforts you all could do in the future.
Go with a Buddy: Sometimes, you can’t always go to a conference with a good friend from work or a friend in the same field area as you. You might end up at a conference by yourself feeling awkward and unsure how to navigate all of those people alone. I’ve been there. What I usually try to do is make the best of it. I may see some people that I know at the conference, hang with them for a while, and then go about my business.
But if you can help it, go with at least one other person. Not your boss, either. Like an actual friend/colleague that you trust. It will be easier to spark conversations with other people and go to social events if you have someone else with you. It makes the trip more fun because you have someone else to chat with about things you are learning or didn’t like about the conference. Your friend may also know people that they can introduce you to so you can build more connections and opportunity for collaboration
Every profession is different. This advice is coming from my view of the workforce through the perspective of working in higher education. I do believe, however, that this advice is transferable to the corporate realm. There are so many necessary gems you can take away from professional conferences that will help you be successful in whatever career you may find yourself in. My goal for my next conference is to become a presenter. I’m ready to start building connections in a new way instead of always being in the audience. I recommend you trying to present at a conference at least once so people can learn about your expertise.
❤ Queen T