Getting the most out of your next conference

RACHEL DOHERTY

Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

At some point this year most youth workers will find themselves at a conference. Here’s five tips to get the most out of your next one.

I was at a conference on the weekend. This one wasn’t about youth work or raising tweens and teens. It covered writing and the art of sharing a message. The topic isn’t important though. Because the act of going to a conference as part of your work is universal.

Lots of youth workers attend conferences as part of their professional development. But unless treated with respect, they can be a waste of time and leave you with nothing more than a cold.

“Change is the end result of true learning.”

LEO BUSCAGLIA

Why attend conferences?

Most people don’t get a chance to sidle up next to the big names in their industry and hear them talk about what they do. But conferences do.

Conferences let you get closer to people on the cutting edge of best practice. You can hear experts share their current thinking or research. They can explain a topic in-depth or just challenge what you’re currently doing.

Conferences can also be a great way to lock in a block of time to concentrate on your practice of youth work. Stepping out of your everyday life for a day or two and thinking about the theory of what you do.

No cooking, cleaning, peak hour traffic or urgent tasks to distract you.

How to get the most out of a conference

If you want to make your next conference the best one you’ve been to yet, think about doing these five things.

1. Get set up before you leave home

Take the stress out of being away from home or work by getting things ready for your absence. If that’s leaving meals, planning pickups for the kids or organising others to cover your clients, then do it!

Sometimes the hardest part of going to a conference is actually getting there. Sorting everyone else out so they can function without you for a few days.

I’ve learned that I don’t have to do as much as I thought I did to get away from home. My family are remarkably capable of sorting out meals and transport without me. And as long as everyone at work knows I’m away, they’ll handle what pops up. After all, they’re used to others being away at conferences too.

“He who learns but does not think, is lost! He who thinks but does not learn is in great danger.” – Confucius

2. Choose electives that fit your role or goals

Most conferences have some sort of break out program. A chance to split into smaller groups and look at one topic in more depth. They’re a great way to compress a lot of learning and dig deep into a new approach, a new tool or even some new research.

Try and make the decision about what electives you’ll go to before you get to the conference. Have a look at the speaker’s digital profile and what they’ve published on the topic already.

A bit of homework can give you a couple of questions to focus on during the presentation. Finding answers to those questions will give you some great action steps for when you get back to work.

3. Don’t get caught up chasing shiny objects

Conferences have long days with lots of information. It’s important to be a bit ruthless in what you take onboard. Look for new ideas, not those “shiny objects” that are the latest thing everyone’s doing.

While you’re in each session, take notes of important points so you don’t have to remember everything. Don’t write down every word though. Focus on key ideas or steps that the speaker shares. You can even cheat by taking photos of key slides during the presentation.

Be on the lookout for a “golden nugget” during the conference. It’s that one thing that you can act on when you get back to your real life. Try and gather as much information as you can on that topic or idea.

If you’re in a session that doesn’t seem relevant, don’t over-analyse it. Take a few notes that you can look back on later, and note down the speaker’s details.

It’s important to come home from a conference with some new ideas but not a sense of overwhelm. That’s where a golden nugget can be helpful.

4. Network, network, network!

Most people find it rather uncomfortable to enter a room without knowing anyone. Let alone start a conversation. But half of what you’ll get out of a conference is what happens outside the presentations and workshops. It’s those conversations in the breaks that can help you build a network of like-minded people. Friends who can encourage you and share their ideas.

Have some way of connecting with people so you can follow up with them later. It might be having some business cards on hand or taking a photo with them and sharing contact details. Even join up on Facebook as friends.

5. Prepare for the “decompression” afterwards

The end of a conference can feel like a dumping in the surf. Give yourself time to sift through what you’ve learned.

If you’ve found that golden nugget then put some time into working out an action plan to make it a reality. Book out a couple of hours to read back over your notes. Think about where things fit in your calendar or role in the coming months.

All that listening and talking is tiring. Not to mention the eating that seems to be part of a good conference. So break out your joggers and headphones, or hide away in your garden and embrace some alone time.

Conferences are a fantastic way to build up your skills and knowledge as a youth worker. They bring great speakers to your doorstep and help you glimpse into how other people do the same thing as you. So with a bit of preparation, and a pen and notepad handy, you too can make the most of that next trip away.

And before I go, I want to give a big shoutout to ProBlogger, the team behind the conference I went to over the weekend. They know how to create a slick program! One that has great content but also provides time to connect with people just like you.

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