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Thursday
Feb142013

Be Here Now: The Zen of Attending a Conference

A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to speak on a panel at a conference in New York City and was given a free pass to attend the all-day conference. Usually, I tend to go to these just for my panel, shake a few hands and drink coffee, then leave—no more than two hours tops. But, since it was a train ride away and they had some great discussions planned on topics like email marketing and big data, I decided to go for the day as a participant. The morning of the conference, my bag felt too heavy to lug around all day (laptop, charger cables, notebook, etc). So, I ditched my backpack at the hotel and showed up with a pen and a pad of paper. I took a deep breath and told myself I was ready to just absorb.

Man, did I absorb! I was completely in the moment all day: engaging with fellow participants, shaking hands, talking with vendors, and taking notes (and I remembered that I have actual handwriting!). I did one work call that I couldn’t escape from and I answered maybe five emails, one personal. By the end of the day, it hit me why I liked going to conferences in the first place: I was engaged and learning. I had to look way back into my conference history to a time where this happened. Then, it struck me what was wrong with my most recent conference experiences:

  • I could never break away from the office
  • My mind was four steps ahead in looking for the “right” panels
  • I was too busy trying to find the “right” people for connections
  • I wasn’t taking time to learn and explore
  • My laptop, Twitter, Instagram, and stealing ideas

Nonprofits have a small budget to give to employees every year to help them with their professional development. The organization is investing in the employee’s skill set so that they can benefit the organization with their newfound knowledge and enhance the employee’s skill set. Looking back, I probably wasted some of those resources (If my employer is reading this, just remember how often I work late sand push our team). I also did myself a disservice by not taking the time to really listen and learn

Now, I’m on a mission: I will attend every conference now with a clean mind and sense of purpose. I will:

  • Stop jumping on calls and answering every work-related email
  • I will plan my panel attending in advance to make sure it matches my needs to learn new things
  • I will be more organic in meeting others and less worried about conference cliques or impressing influentials
  • I will take notes and really listen to the panel (and not rely on trying to get the panel’s presentation as a substitute for notes).
  • I will stop texting, tweeting, and posting and be in the moment. I’ll also try to listen just for the tactic to use, but get inspired to come up with my own idea.

I’ll get another swing at this at SXSW in Austin next month (and hopefully NTEN and few other places throughout the year). Hoping this will start a movement and that I can look around a room at a panel and see a sea of nonprofit professional faces looking up, listening, and learning together.

Reader Comments (2)

You truly showed up with the rarest of gifts, Garth, a willingness to give others your full attention which must have been very attractive... and rare. As a public speaker I went through a similar change too, which is easier before I speak, and can be a somewhat introverted (natural to me) participant and learn more -- plus serendipitously see unexpected sweet spots fo shared interest because i could be more open to them, without physical or mental equipment to preoccupy me.... thank you this was most timely and humbly expressed
February 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkare anderson
Garth, thank you more this important posts about the most important parts of a conference: learning & engaging. I know I've had a lot more ideas bubbling up when I'm putting some notes to paper and resisting the urge to pick up an electronic device. I do feel like tweeting can be a good thing, as the Twitter conversation from sessions does add a lot of value, especially for non-attendees, but there's definitely a balance to strike so as not to miss out on the in-person engagement.

Look forward to seeing you at NTC!
February 19, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Keane

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