I’m attending my first in-person conference this week at the National Lymphedema Network 2021 Conference. After almost a year & a half since my last in-person conference, I’m really excited & a bit nervous.
I absolutely love conferences. I love connecting with people I’ve encountered through social media & the podcast, meeting new people, & learning the latest & greatest ways to help people. With that said, it’s really easy to get swept up in the excitement & bustle of the conference, & then walk away without remembering a whole lot of what you’ve learned.
So what I’ve started doing is going to every conference with a plan. Not just what sessions I’m going to attend, but a set plan for what I want to do & learn.
While you may think this takes the spontaneity out of the conference experience, I’ve found that this plan helps me be more receptive to the spontaneous moments & still come away from a conference with a lot of useful information.
Sure, you could go in without a plan, but this is the best way to get overwhelmed & probably forget a lot of the stuff you learned before you even get back home.
So here’s my tried & true method for making the most of each conference I attend:
Do your research ahead of time.
Don’t go into a conference blindly. I knew very little about APTA-CSM, which was my very first conference in PT school. So when I walked into the Anaheim Convention Center for the first time, I was overwhelmed. So many physical therapy professionals, so many sessions to choose from. I picked a few sessions to go to, some that totally changed the trajectory of my PT career, but what I didn’t realize is that there were breaks in between the sessions. So I sat around for nearly an hour in a half-empty room wondering when the next session would start. Meanwhile, my friends were out looking for me…
SO…don’t go into a conference blindly. Know what you’re getting yourself into ahead of time.
Make objectives for yourself.
Create objectives for your conference experience. After doing your research, decide what you want to get out of the conference. Whether it’s specific topics, meeting particular people, or stopping by booths to network, have objectives for your time.
This doesn’t mean plan out every minute. Because again, I like the spontaneity of conferences – you never know who you might meet accidentally (PT Dan & Elise, for example). But if you have set objectives, you’re more likely to use your time wisely to accomplish these objectives, & then be open to opportunities that present themselves along the way.
Create a plan.
If you’re attending a conference with multiple session options, have a plan for what sessions you want to attend. And then have a back-up plan. Sometimes sessions have a seat limit & fill up before you can get there. Sometimes sessions are duds. I’ve definitely been to a few of those so far: you excitedly show up, ready to learn, only to discover that the content or the presentation bore you to tears. And you need to make a quick exit.
So when these happen, because they probably will at some point, it’s helpful to have a back-up plan to still salvage the session for you.
Have a note-taking system.
This looks differently for every person. Will you write or type? Are you going to make notes on a google doc or on the slides from the presenter? Are there even slides from the presenter? Are you going to take notes or not?
If you do take notes, will you jot down highlights or are you trying to write all major points made by the speaker?
Be realistic with yourself.
This past APTA-CSM, I was completely overwhelmed. If you didn’t go to Combined Sections Meeting this year, here’s the recap: it was all virtual, with sessions happening in the evening hours, all throughout February. It was like a giant CEU marathon, & it was exhausting.
I don’t learn well in that environment anyways, but on top of that, I was last-minute cramming for the oncology specialist certification exam. So my thought of “oh this will be great review for the exam,” was totally off the mark. Instead, I was trying to prioritize my time between CSM sessions, studying, & manage my stress, which really didn’t help the stress part at all.
What I should have done, was just focus on studying. I should have been honest with myself about what I needed, instead of trying to keep with my annual CSM tradition.
All in all, I passed the exam, but I should have used my time more wisely, instead of trying to cram everything in.
So if you’re deciding between attending a conference or not, it’s critical to be realistic with yourself. Can you devote the time to this conference? Are you going to be thinking about the billion things waiting for you at home?
If you really want to attend your next conference, it may require more prep work ahead of time to make it all work. But at the end of the day, be realistic, because I want you to ENJOY your conference experience!