Last week I spent 3 days and nights at a fantastic conference. I’ll give you some details in a minute. But the incredibly valuable experience inspired me to share some lessons and stories with you here.
You’ll soon see why Tip #3 – ASSOCIATE WITH PEOPLE IN THE FIELD – is so important. And why CONFERENCES are an incomparable location vs anywhere else you can be to interact with others.
If you are a young professional or still a student in school, I think it’s necessary to give you some basic tips and guidelines on conference etiquette. Do these things and you will get a lot out of a conference – and not ruin your reputation or your chances at a good job for many years to come.
If you are an experienced professional and want to take your career to the next level, you will also see why a conference can lead to major wins.
The conference I attended was InterDrone Expo 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. It is currently the largest commercial drone event in North America (with some worthy competition). Including a pre-conference day of extended workshops, it was a 4-day event with over 300 sessions, a huge exhibit hall with over 200 exhibitors, a dozen keynote speakers, an award ceremony for Women in Drones, networking receptions, and many worldwide announcements for joint ventures, acquisitions, and new product launches.
Here I am with Chintana at the Bentley Systems booth. Their digital modeling software was featured in my book Success with Drones in Civil Engineering.
Here is a list of reasons why attending an industry conference has no comparison to anything else you can do for your career:
- Hear directly from, get introduced to, and meet the movers and shakers and top leaders in your industry
- See, touch, feel, and learn detailed information about the products and services shaping your industry
- Make new connections that can lead to better opportunities
- Strengthen existing relationships with people you haven’t met in person frequently or ever before
- Learn the state of the art, best practices, and valuable lessons learned from others “in the trenches”
- Learn major trends in terms of business, jobs, technologies, markets, challenges, and opportunities
- Put yourself in a position to get lucky with serendipity
“You never know until you go” is my mantra for going to these conferences.
Something happened to me on the very first day that proves this point.
My colleague / friend and I were leaving the conference to sit and enjoy a dinner and drink together to reflect on the day. Someone passed us going into the conference. He still had his luggage so it looked like he was coming straight from the airport to get there ASAP.
He asked us if the conference was still open. We said it was probably shutting down, but he was headed in the right direction to try and check in.
Then my friend said, “By the way, here’s an extra drink ticket if the reception bar is still open.” It was a friendly gesture with the hope that this person would be able to use it.
The two of us got a table at the front of a hotel restaurant facing the lobby. After the two of us had been sitting and talking for a few minutes, we saw this same person walking back out from the conference area. It had shut down so he was walking back to check into his room.
We made eye contact and said “Too late, eh?”
He said yes, so we invited him to join us, share the appetizers we were waiting for, and get a drink if he wanted.
He obliged and we proceeded to have a nice conversation.
Here’s the kicker: he was the #3 person at a US federal agency!
How often do you have the chance to have a face-to-face sit-down casual chat with one of those people?
You never know who you might meet when you go to a conference.
What other people call “luck” is often a person making smart decisions to put themselves in the right time and place for “luck” to find them.
One thing is guaranteed – if you DON’T go to a conference, you are certain NOT to meet the people who are there.
Besides meeting important, smart, and interesting people, you also get to look at the latest tools and technologies that are available. Here is a DJI Mavic Pro drone with an emergency parachute system from Fruity Chutes. When you are spending $1,000, $2,000, or $30,000 (yes) on an unmanned vehicle system, it makes sense to invest a few hundred dollars on a parachute system as a smart insurance policy. (For a 7.5% discount on Fruity Chute products if you order in 2018, get my book and use the discount code in the back. If you get the DJI Mavic Pro drone thanks a lot for using my affiliate link here.)
This is a good time and place to list a few recommendations and pointers for the younger or less experienced people reading this on how to make the most of a conference. Please take these pointers seriously, coming from someone who likes to consider himself an established and professional conference-goer.
- Prepare yourself. Study the sessions, the presenters, and the exhibitors. Make an explicit schedule and list of people you want to meet. (I actually knew some background on our unexpected dinner guest because I had studied his bio in the program. That helped quickly develop rapport, respect, and trust.)
- Be healthy and rested. You want to be operating at full physical and mental power at all times, and with a long endurance. (If you think the conference is over when the last session ends, you’re wrong. The most valuable discussions happen in the hallways, over meals, and after hours.)
- Don’t drink excessively or indulge in bad habits. Your behavior is on display at all times.
- Be polite, professional, and respectful to EVERYONE. Everyone deserves respect and civility, let’s just start there. At a conference, you never know who they are, or who else is watching. Someone who is “obviously” not a part of your industry crowd may be the son, daughter, or spouse of someone who is. (Plenty of stories exist with stupid behavior there.) Hotel or conference staff are real people too.
- Respect the time and expertise of people during group sessions. In other words, don’t ask “newbie” questions or monopolize the Q&A portions. Examples would be definitions of terms, acronyms, or jargon. There will be a lot you may not know so take fast notes and be prepared to have a lot to research later. Try quietly and politely asking the person next to you. Or use your smart phone discretely and look things up right there.
- Have your 10-second introduction ready and perfected. A good formula is: “My name is ___. I am from ___ (where) and am doing _____ (what studies or work). My goal at this conference is to ___. How about you?” This short intro explains the basics, establishes several opportunities for common interest or a referral, and turns the focus back to the other person quickly.
- Be a sponge. Use all of your senses, your analytical mind, and your intuition or “gut” to learn and absorb everything you can. Collect info and literature from the exhibitors. Reserve time at the end of each day to reflect, journal, or record what happened so you can remember and integrate it into yourself later.
When I was younger, I was driven to attend industry conferences so I could benefit from all of the knowledge, connections, and opportunities they offer. Many times I had to pay my own way and take vacation time to attend. It was always worth it.
Later, as I got more experience, I also got better at submitting abstracts and papers which were accepted for conferences. When that happened, I had a strong case to get employer funding and support to attend.
I also became a volunteer leader with professional societies. Often they use conferences as a time and place to hold face-to-face officer meetings which are otherwise impractical or impossible to do. When you “pick yourself” to be a volunteer leader in a professional society, this is another effective way to get to conferences and have someone else pay for it.
As you become a recognized expert in your field, eventually you may find yourself in the nice position where your expenses get covered by people who want to hear from you. That’s how I got to be a speaker at InterDrone 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada last week. My class was called “Project Management Fundamentals for Commercial Drone Operations.” It was the first time at InterDrone that a session qualified for professional development units (PDUs). In this case those PDUs were for anyone with a PMP certification (Project Management Professional).
Here is a picture that someone took and shared on social media from the session. I wore the safety vest so people could find me easier and to emphasize the need for professional safety equipment and practices.
Based on the large attendance and positive feedback, there will likely be more certification-level classes at InterDrone next year in 2019. One person came up to me after the class and said “This is exactly what I was hoping to get at this conference.” What a nice piece of feedback that was I happy to hear.
I hope this article gave you some valuable insights into the unique and tremendous value of conferences. Have a story of your own or a future conference goal you want to share? I would like to read about it below.
Take care, and take charge.