How to Tackle Your First Conference
The ins and outs of successfully representing your company at your first professional conference.
I recently was asked to represent SalientMG at the 3% Conference in Washington, DC. It was it my first conference, and I was going solo. Naturally, I was a little worried about how to approach, what to wear, what to bring, what to expect, what to do, and how to act; the whole nine yards. Knowing I was representing my firm, I wanted to be prepared. Thankfully, I work in a company where I am encouraged to ask questions; but knowing some may not be, I am sharing what I learned:
How to Approach
Set yourself up for success. Talk to your boss and set some objectives. In my case, my boss wanted me to engage in the content and share, via social and post-conference blog post(s), some of the key discussions. She also wanted me to learn how to navigate a room and start conversations with industry peers. Finally, she wanted me to absorb the whole experience so I could share it with others who will find themselves in the same position at some point.
What To Wear
Read the guidelines for the conference you’ll be attending; most of the time it will tell you attire. In my case, it was business casual so I wore black pants with a black top and white blazer. A trick I learned, due to the networking aspect and wanting to look as approachable as possible, find a statement piece. Whether that’s a specific piece of jewelry that helps you stand out, a bright colored top, a fun printed bag, etc. Anything that makes people feel welcome to chat, is your best option. I had a bright pink bag. Men, fun lapel pins or pocket squares work for you! Not only will you be easier to speak with, but also if you ask specific questions people are more likely to recognize that small quirk in your outfit and speak to you later as well. The biggest piece of advice when it comes to clothes wear either a blazer, a sweater, or have some sort of layers. The auditoriums are typically freezing and you’ll want to be comfortable so that you can really focus on the speakers.
What To Bring
I wasn’t sure what to expect, as every conference is different so I over-prepared. I typically like to take notes on my laptop so that I can keep up with what’s being said at a faster speed. However, I brought a small notebook just in case the crowd wasn’t pleased with the glow. I’m so glad I did. Not a soul in my conference was using their laptop so I stuck to writing things down. Bring both. I know plenty of conferences that don’t mind laptops, but I would hate it if you couldn’t and had no other means of note taking. Also, another big thing, bring business cards. There are typically opportunities at every conference to network and if there are possible business opportunities you need to be able to contact each other. The conference rooms can be stuffy and dry as well, so bring water.
What to Expect
You will most likely feel the ‘first day of school’ vibes where you’re trying to meet people so you don’t look like an outcast at lunch. It’s ok. Everyone feels slightly uncomfortable at first. It’s so normal. In order to get past that though, make sure you introduce yourself to people and ask plenty of questions. I always said, “this is actually my first conference, do you have any good advice for the day or recommendations?” This was the best ice breaker. People love to tell you their opinions, give advice, and feel valued. Also, you’ll be sitting for most of the conference, so make sure you like the seat you’re in and try to talk with the people around you, they might be who you eat lunch with later. Last bit of advice, a lot of conferences offer a breakfast/networking hour before the conference starts during check in, don’t show up exactly on time. You’ll be one of the only people there and it starts the conference off on an uncomfortable note.
What to Do
As I had specific things I needed to do, and a few I wanted to do. If I didn’t have objectives, I may have felt a bit lost. But I had researched the speakers and prepared for the sessions. I took pages of notes during the conference, made industry connections, and even introduced myself to a potential partner for my company. I walked away inspired by the diversity of thought, experience and approach to the world every speaker had. I have the notes to go through this week and I get to look back at all the social posts I made, while representing my company at the event. So if your boss hasn’t given you objectives, make them for yourself; it gives you an anchor onsite.
I loved my first conference experience. It was very intimidating at first, but I gained so much from hearing new perspectives and opinions. I truly believe it helped my professional career more than I honestly thought possible.
My advice? Be prepared, but relax. Embrace the overall experience. Enjoy the conference, smile a lot, and introduce yourself to the speakers you connected most to. You won’t regret it.
About the Author
Erin Stanton is the marketing and public relations manager at SalientMG, a New York-based consulting firm that provides nontraditional go-to-market strategies and executive visibility for underrepresented professionals. A devoted marketing professional, Erin utilizes her blended background of sales, marketing, communications and project management to leverage best practices and provide valuable advice for young professionals struggling to break into the market. Erin graduated from The University of Alabama with a degree in marketing, Roll Tide!