First Time Conference Attendee Tips

Optimize Professional Conference Participation

I prepared these tips several years ago to help students and professionals who made plans to attend a professional conference for the first time to optimize professional conference participation.  Perhaps, event planners will wish to prepare similar guidelines to help first time attendees at their conferences. Hopefully, the guideline will help to make your conference into an experience for the first time attendee, rather than just a series of meetings.

Tip #1: Networking, Please Prepare Now!!!!

One of the primary reasons for attending a conference or convention is to network with other attendees. To make your networking experience more productive you should plan to bring business cards with you to trade with speakers, potential employers, and other attendees. (You may also have the opportunity to enter your cards in a raffle at your hotel desk, exhibit hall, conference registration, etc.)
Business cards need not be expensive. You could:

  • Print and cut them to size yourself using 24 pound or heavier paper.
  • Buy business card stock at a stationary store.
  • Look for printing specials at your local printers or office supply store.
  • Purchase online from vendors such as VistaPrint.

Your card should contain at a minimum your name, telephone number, email address, website URL (if you have a professional website). Also, the card should contain a job title or a tag line or two which describe you. You need not provide your personal home address but may wish to include a school or department address. Just be sure you will receive any mail sent there.

Sample Business Card to Optimize Professional Conference Participation

Sample Business Card

If ordering online, order your cards a month or two before the conference so you’ll be sure to have them for the conference. Also, always carry a few cards with you. You never know who you may meet and want to network with on a plane, at a talk or even in line at a restaurant or a store.
When attending conferences with exhibitors it is also a good idea to bring address labels and/or a name and address stamp so that you can spend more time networking and less time writing.
Check your telephone answering message, your FaceBook and LinkedIn pages. Do a Google search on yourself. Be sure everything looks professional. Check your friends, too. Delete anything that is not. The “cute saying” or photo from High School may not belong on the web any more.

Tip #2: Resumes That ROAR — Results Oriented And Relevant

You may wish to bring resumes to the conference to give to potential employers, people who may be able to be a champion for you and pass them on to potential employers, or even colleagues and professionals who may be willing to do a resume review for you.
If you plan to bring a resume with you, please be sure to make it ROAR (Results Oriented and Relevant). Making a resume ROAR is vital because, as you know, one of the first gatekeepers to getting a great job (or perhaps even a good job) is your resume. A person (and/or a computer) will scan your resume until they lose interest in it or decide to invite you for an interview, depending which comes first. As you know, companies typically receive many resumes for each position to fill, thus your resume has to ROAR to the top of the interest list to be successful.
Here is a simple question: does your resume ROAR (or speak loudly) for you?
Here is a quick checklist to help you decide:

RO stands for Results Oriented:

  • Have you explained all of your experiences to demonstrate the results you achieved, rather than merely providing a job description which might reasonably be inferred from your job title? For example, if you were a cashier and said “ran merchandise over a scanner” you probably restated the obvious and helped your resume become ignored. On the other hand, if you reported that you “Won Customer Service Award” or “Take pride in providing friendly, 100% accurate and efficient service to every customer” your resume looks more interesting. All too many resumes I’ve reviewed are mere job descriptions. Help yourself by critically reading each phrase in your experiences section.  Ask yourself “Could this have been inferred from the job title?” If so, remove it. Be results oriented.
  • Does your Objectives Section at the top of your resume indicate what result the company may look forward to achieving as a result of hiring you? For example, “Eager to provide highest quality service to customers.” Again, be results oriented here, too.

* AR stands for And Relevant:

  • Have you explained all of your job experiences in a way that they are relevant to the position you are seeking? In order to ROAR (speak loudly) for you they must do so.
  • Does your objectives section map the job description for your potential new job to all of your results oriented experiences? Does it show the value you will bring to the company? All too often I’ve found objective sections to be applicant centered (“I want to learn…” or “I want to gain experience…”) rather than relevant to the employer. Again, Be sure to be relevant to the employer.

Hint: for your resume to ROAR you probably will need to write a unique objectives section for each position you are applying for. You may also need to do minor edits on all of your job experiences as well.
A few other tips:

  • Check your resume for errors and neatness. Be 100% sure your telephone, address and email address are 100% correct.
  • Be sure your resume is much better than any model you see in a resume book. If you following a book you will have an average resume, a C!
  • Never hire a resume service to write a resume for you. If you do and you receive an interview this will probably come through loud and clear and may disqualify you from further consideration.
  • Never include the words “References Furnished Upon Request” on a resume. While this phrase was common many years ago, it is now dated, says nothing useful, and is even insulting to the reader.
  • Always seek advice from knowledgeable people and ask them to help you by reviewing your resume and discussing it with you.
  • Resumes take many drafts to be good. Don’t think about sending out the first or second draft.
  • Include the appropriate key words on your resume so a computer can find it.
  • Be sure your resume emphasizes your strengths, not your weaknesses. For example, I received a resume from someone with many years experience who emphasized they had one year of college. I’ve seen other resumes which emphasize GPAs which are far from exemplary.
  • It is OK to have multiple resumes if you are considering various types of positions.

Remember, having a great resume will help you to optimize professional conference participation.

Tip # 3: Volunteer To Help Out

Once you are at the conference you want to optimize professional conference participation.  You may:

  • Be traveling a long way to attend the conference
  • Have an important paper to present.
  • Want to do some sightseeing.

With all of these goals, should you spend time volunteering to help to produce the conference?
Selected conferences offer minimal compensation to some student volunteers, such as refunding the student registration fee. Not a bad deal, but it is possible that the hotel charges to be at the conference to cover time spent volunteering will more than offset the “free” registration. Thus, financial compensation may or may not be reason to volunteer.
The major reason to volunteer is to meet people whom you would not ordinarily meet and have a chance to speak with them. For example if the conference:

  • Has an interview area or a job information area or a graduate school information area and you volunteer to help out there, you may have an opportunity to network with interviewers during slow times. These discussions can lead to ongoing relationships. I have seen them lead to job offers.
  • Distributes speaker or other Very Important Person (VIP) ribbons and you help to distribute ribbons, you may have the opportunity to begin to build a relationship with people you might not ordinarily meet.
  • Has ambassadors who simply help people out by offering directions, you may have an opportunity to meet some very interesting people and begin to develop a relationship with them.
  • Is looking for people to take pictures at events (and you do this well) you have the opportunity to meet people and then to follow up by sending them a picture of themselves.
  • Has workshops and you assist at a workshop being given by an expert in a field you are interested in, if you do a great job volunteering, you may learn a great deal, save the enrollment fee and you never know what future results may be.
  • Is looking for people to help in the back room to mail out proceedings, stuff envelopes or the like, that is a job probably better left to local people or a paid staff or a volunteer to be done well before or well after the conference as there may not be not much potential for you to build relationships.

Finally, if you are at a program looking for “on stage” volunteers or “audience participation” it may be a good idea to volunteer if you are comfortable being “on stage.” I have seen participants who, for example, participate on stage being recognized by potential interviewers and having doors open which have led to job offers. Indeed, this has happened to participants in some of my Education by Entertainment programs.
As with many potential opportunities, volunteering may help to get you in the door. What you do with the opportunity is up to you. For example, if you are at the ribbon desk handing out ribbons and it is not busy, do you converse with your clients, or do you simply hand them a ribbon as quickly as you can and get back to whatever you were doing (e.g., reading a book, talking to friends)? Are you sending clients a message “I want to talk” or “I’m busy.”

Tip # 4: Maximize the Value of  Conference Participation

Conventional wisdom dictates that having student membership in professional organizations is good. For some people the membership is truly meaningful. For others, I’ve observed that it is mostly a “resume entry.”
Let me start here by taking you to a hypothetical interview that we might be having. You have applied to me for a position and I’m asking you some questions.
Ron: I see that you are (the president, an officer, a member) of your student organization and attended the conference in last year. Please tell me:

  • How did you go about influencing the organization/conference and how did the organization/conference influence you?
  • What impact did you have on the organization/conference and what impact did the organization/conference have on you?
  • Why did the experiences you provided make a difference to the organization/conference and why did the experiences provided by the organization/conference make a difference for you?

An excellent answer from you, assuming you are a first time attendee and perhaps a sophomore:

  • Attended the conference and had a great time.
  • Learned a great deal and had an opportunity to network with people I never would have had the opportunity to meet.
  • Shared some ideas regarding what my organization is doing with other schools and Meghan from Pennsylvania indicated that she is going to try to launch some of these activities. Also, Meghan shared some ideas with me that I plan to implement.

As a result of our discussion, I expect that:

  • Meghan’s school will be having a Career Night similar to ours.
  • We will have a conference debriefing session similar to what they do.
  • More individuals from our school will be interested in attending next year’s conference.
  • Meghan’s school will have better job candidates.

Additionally, our organization will be seen as more relevant to both our members and Meghan’s and we expect to see our chapter’s grow.
Also, I might add, that both Megan and I were inspired to run for president of our organization next year.  I think we will enjoy working together and sharing ideas.  There may be some rivalry between us as both of us may decide to bid for the student vice president of the same national organizations the year after next. We will learn how to cooperate and compete with each other at the same time. This will be a valuable lesson for us as we move into jobs in industry.
Honestly, I’m not sure which elections she will win and which I will win the year we are seniors, but I’m confident each of us will win some.
I need to admit this would be an excellent answer. The student responding this way really did optimize professional conference participation.  Quite candidly, yours may not be as good. On the other hand, don’t leave me saying (or thinking), OK he paid his registration fee and dues to buy a resume entry. If I come to that conclusion I’m much less likely to be interested in hiring you.

Tip # 5: Maximize Every Moment Of Your Being At The Conference

If I’m presenting at your conference I could start by saying come to my session. It is the most valuable use of your time at the conference.   While I want this to be true, conference program committees work very hard to secure outstanding programs. Indeed the wisest thing you can do if there are several of you from your school/company at the conference is to split up and cover all of the sessions.  That way, you will optimize professional conference participation.
As you attend sessions don’t merely passively absorb the material. Instead, be on a mission. The mission is to figure out how to effectively present the session to your colleagues when you return to school. Thus, you will become an active learner and will learn the material… as opposed to just listening to it.
Don’t be afraid to ask the speakers if they will send you their PowerPoint or their notes. You might even consider asking the speaker to connect electronically as you present your report to your colleagues and friends. If you really enjoyed a session, consider inviting the speaker to present at your school/business either electronically or in person.
Once you arrive at the conference spend time meeting people you do not know.  There will be plenty of time to talk with colleagues from your school/business at other times.
At the conference, try not to have lunch or dinner at the same table with anyone whom you know. Instead, try to meet people and network at every meal.
As you travel to/from the industry tour try to travel with new people.
As you arrive at a session try to sit next to people you don’t know.
Don’t sit silently waiting for a program to begin. Treat each minute as a potentially valuable networking and learning experience.
Trade business cards with people whom you meet. Make some notes on the back of their card that will help you to remember them.
When you arrive back home from the conference, connect with your new friends via LinkedIn, FaceBook, email, etc. Think of ways in which to keep in touch, connect and help each other out. (Oh yes, if you aren’t already on LinkedIn with a professional profile, establish one before the conference.)
If you find that you are very interested in a particular presentation tell the speaker. Make arrangements to stay in contact with them.  Think about ways in which you might work with the speaker in the future.  You might:

  • Work on a project for a professional society.
  • Do a joint research project.
  • Secure an internship.
  • Pursue an informal mentorship.

As you meet colleagues think of ways in which you may work with them in the future.
Hopefully, you will be in contact with some of the people you meet 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, 45 and even 50 years from now.
(c) 2011, 2018 Ronald G. Shapiro. All Rights Reserved

Dr. Ronald


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