Many of today’s conferences put breakout sessions online in video format for free within a few days of the conference occurring. Given the relatively high cost of conference tickets, as well as the costs around travelling to the conference and accommodation at the event, it’s reasonable to ask yourself:
“If I can get the breakout sessions in video format for free, is it worth attending the conference?”
Downloading videos doesn’t mean you’ll watch them
There’s a big difference between downloading conference videos on topics that you want to watch and actually watching those videos. Going to a conference has the ancillary benefit of you actually allocating time to consume content. Most people never find this time. It’s one thing to go to a 3 day conference and attend 8 hours of sessions each day, it’s another to download 24 hours worth of videos and find time to actually watch them.
Even if you do find time to watch them, it’s often far more difficult to adsorb content from videos that it is to adsorb content from a live breakout session. Unless you have an excellent ability to focus your attention, it’s likely that you’ll just end up only paying partial attention to a video that ends up playing in the background while you are doing other things.
Downloading conference videos for later consumption seems like a great idea, but requires you to put aside serious time to consume them and to learn what you can from them. Most people just end up with a folder full of videos that they never really watch. One of the benefits of going to a conference is that you’ve made a commitment to put aside time to learn, one that’s more difficult to break than a commitment to just watch some videos when you get around to it.
You have to pay attention in the session
In choosing to be present at a session, you need to be present in the session. If you’re just going to sit in the room while the presenter talks, only half listening to what they have to say whilst browsing twitter, reddit, slack or Skeletor meme sites, you’re wasting your time and would have been better off just downloading videos.
People, especially those in IT, overestimate what they can accomplish and the information that they can take in with continuous partial attention. One of the best things you can do at a conference is put all digital devices in your bag and take notes the old fashioned way with a notebook. This will force you to pay attention in a way that having a laptop, tablet, or phone in your hand or lap will not.
If you’ve committed to be at the conference, commit to providing your full attention to the conference.
It helps if you know what questions you want answered
While some conference goers attend sessions about topics they know nothing about out of curiosity, you’ll get the most out of a conference session if you do some preparation yourself. If you know what you want to get out of the session before you attend you’ll get more out of it than if you just turn up and see what happens. If you are lucky, the presenter will answer your question during the session, either because they do so naturally as part of the session itself, or because you ask a relevant question at the appropriate point in time.
Remember that you can come up to the presenter to ask questions when they finish their session. If they are busy and need to run to another session, ask if there is another point at which you can follow up with them. One of the most important tasks of a presenter is to do their best to answer delegate questions. If you get a presenter that goes out of their way to show their unwillingness to address your queries, put that information in your session evaluation. Conference organizers avoid speakers who avoid their audience questions.
You’ll get more out of conferences if you socialize
Most conferences have social events. They may be after hours dinners or speaker lunches. There are often also many informal meetings that occur in the conference hallways. The point of these events is to give delegates another forum in which to engage speakers. You should avail yourself of this opportunity to get your questions answered. It also means that you should do some preparation. What you should avoid doing is just hanging around a speaker with the hope that someone else will ask the questions you want answered.
You should also engage other delegates. Conferences are one of the few times that you’ll get to meet other people that do what you do. Make sure that if you do make a contact, you follow up with that contact. Connect on LinkedIn and make sure that you remember to keep that contact up. People that you meet at conferences can be sources of invaluable opportunities in future. Networking isn’t just about setting up a DHCP server, it’s about making meaningful connections that may assist you throughout your career.
It’s worth going to conferences if you are prepared
If you remember conference is not a holiday, prepare for sessions by determining what you want to know, and make sure that you engage both speakers and other delegates, then going to a conference is a worthwhile investment of your time. If you know you won’t get around to asking questions, will spend time at the conference using social media or surfing meme sites whilst paying partial attention to whatever the speaker is going on about, then perhaps conferences aren’t for you. If you can fully commit to the conference experience, you’ll probably get something meaningful out of it.