Executive Suite: How to work a conference

Mimi Browning

Fall brings football, parties and a slate of professional conferences. For government and industry alike, these events provide information, contacts, and the opportunity to refresh skills and aspirations.

What makes a conference successful has more to do with one's own attitude and motivation than the conference agenda itself. Taking this perspective, I offer several tips for working a conference so it benefits you and your organization.

  • Set goals and actively participate. It doesn't take any imagination to go to a conference, attend the sessions, scarf up the freebies and food, and get back to the office with a low-level ticket punch. You can do better.


  • First, set goals for yourself'three is a good number'and make sure you accomplish them. Next, take an active role in conference activities. For example, participate in a panel session, plan and conduct a workshop, or be on one of the committees that run the conference. If you aspire to the executive ranks, work your contacts to get a spot as one of the plenary speakers.

  • Get out of your comfort zone. How many times have you gone to a conference, hung around with pals and attended familiar sessions? Unless one of your pals offered you the deal of the century, you wasted a golden opportunity.


  • Conferences are neutral territory where you can experiment. Use the freedom to seek out new ventures. This could be as simple as learning about a new technology or business outside your current spectrum or as exotic as throwing your hat in the ring for a job on the other side of the world. Be bold and explore.

  • Improve your professional skills. Conferences are full of opportunities to upgrade your skills. The obvious ones are attending plenary sessions and workshops where specific topics are briefed. But there are others. Corporations market products and services that can be of direct value to you. Visit their booths for the latest information and contacts. Some conferences offer continuing-education certificates or credits. Check these out, especially if they are in your professional strike zone. Lastly, be on the lookout for useful Web sites and handouts.


  • Network, network. The biggest benefit of any conference is the opportunity for networking. You can renew professional and social relationships and will have ample opportunity to cultivate new ones.


  • Understand that networking is not simply saying hello to someone. Successful networking involves targeted social and professional interactions. Make sure you have plenty of business cards, take requests for information and future meetings seriously, and give as well as take.

  • Follow up. The conference is over. You have a stack of new business cards. Your pockets are filled with notes written on programs and napkins. You've talked with many people and agreed to meet with them in the future.


  • To deal with post-conference overload, do two things: Make sure you have achieved your conference goals, and prioritize and act on your most important commitments.
    Remember, a conference is only as good as you make it, so make sure you are focused and in control of your conference destiny.

    Mimi Browning is a former Army senior executive who is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. of McLean, Va. She can be reached at browning_Miriam@bah.com.

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