Making Conferences Work for You

This post has been updated. The name of the conference/session I’ll be attending is AIAA Space Forum.

Next week I will be attending the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Space Forum here in Orlando. At least, that’s the plan. Last year the conference was canceled due to the arrival of Hurricane Irma. My big goals, as always, are to learn what’s going on in the space business and, of more personal interest, reconnect with my contacts in the industry to discuss possible work opportunities. However, there is a bit more to conference preparation than selecting your wardrobe and deciding which sessions to attend.

Ensure Employer Approval

I talk about this elsewhere, but if you’re going to attend as part of your job, it’s usually a good idea to get approval to go first. That often requires filling out a justification form of some sort, as well as travel paperwork.

Travel Sensibly

In addition to the paperwork side of things, there are also other things to work out, like packing and setting up your hotel reservation and getting you and your luggage there all together. One reason I’m attending this conference next week is that it’s local, so I can avoid the travel and hotel and just focus on the event.

Networking Strategically

One thing I try to do with conferences is identify who will be speaking. Sometimes conferences even post a list of attendees and vendors to make it easier for you to know who will be there. This is useful because it allows you the opportunity to set up appointments or meetings with these individuals or companies while you are there.

Having Business Cards Handy

I know: some of you are probably rolling your eyes: “Physical business cards? How analog! How 19th century! People don’t really use cards still, do they?” Yes, they do.

Cards have one primary advantage over simply exchanging electronic information via smart phone: they are a tangible reminder of the person you spoke to, which can be more memorable than just adding some information to your contact list. For example, my business cards are printed on quality card stock and have a blank space on the back for people to write notes or reminders so they can follow up later.

Needless to say, it’s much easier to have these cards already printed and ready than waiting until the last minute. Mistakes are more likely and rush-delivery prices are bound to be higher.

Thinking About What You Want to Say

This is something I still need to do. I have several aerospace customers right now, so seeking out new or additional work might overfill my plate. Do I want to discuss future opportunities? Do I just want to touch base? Do I want to introduce myself? And what do I tell people about what I’m doing now? For example, one of my employers is adamant about me not sharing my association with them for advertising or business purposes. Very well, I’ll talk about the work I CAN talk about.

I am not presenting at this conference, but if you are someone who presents, you will need to make sure your presentation is in order and that you’ve brought a backup copy with you in case there are “issues” when it’s your turn to speak.

Also, there are times when you don’t have to talk business. That leads to the bane of the introvert’s social existence: small talk. What do you say when there’s nothing to say? Or is the goal just to listen and gather “intelligence” on the people around you? (That last option is legitimate, just don’t look too obvious about eavesdropping on conversations.)

Look the Part 

This can be tricky, depending on the event, your goals, the location, and your available wardrobe. Are you looking to get a job? Business attire is appropriate. Are you there to socialize? Business casual might be acceptable (check here or here if you’re uncertain what those mean). As it happens, this conference is in Florida, so business casual is not too unusual, as people can melt if they step outside in business suits.

Another thing I’ve learned to do is do a little research on the conference website or among previous attendees to see what the usual dress code is like, if any. I might split the difference this year and wear a blazer and khakis with my Hawaiian shirts.

Learn and Have Fun

I’m one of those folks who finds learning enjoyable, so attending the technical sessions is always a worthwhile thing to do. And while, yes, you’ve told your employer that you will be conducting serious business, there are no rules against making new acquaintances or enjoying light conversation with friends or peers.

Conferences are social occasions–they’re a real-world way for people in a given industry to have face-to-face contacts that cannot be replicated by our various electronic gadgets. Make the most of the opportunity!

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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