Mastering conferences

I recently attended the Global Health and Innovation Conference at Yale, the first non-work conference I’ve ever attending. After attending dozens of academic gatherings over the years, this was by far my favorite. I left full of ideas, new connections and clarity about my life path.

What made this conference different than the rest?

I really wanted to be there.

Don’t get me wrong, the conferences I attended while pursuing my masters and PhD programs were interesting. But here’s the thing about academia: it’s difficult to study something you’re really passionate about.

Why? Because you almost always have to specialize. And as you’re specializing, it will be in an area that interests your advisor, because you are there, after all, to support his or her work. I started out in college wanting to improve the lives of marginalized people and years later I was analyzing the impact of increased fiber consumption on pancreatic function. Interesting work? Yes. Potential to improve lives? Probably. Did it encompass the scope of my interest and serve as a platform for reaching my potential? I didn’t think so.

If you know what you want to study early on and this aligns with a faculty member’s research, then kudos to you. But most of us learn about what interests us by actually trying it, and there are few options for shifting around once you’re on the academic track.

Leaving my doctoral program created an opportunity to shift my vantage point. Zoom way out. Clear the canvas and ask myself: what do I really want to learn about? How do I want to impact the world?

Here’s how to maximize your conference attendance:

1. Choose a conference that interests you

What do stay up late reading on your own time? What books are on your Amazon wish list? For me, it’s books about social entrepreneurship, social innovation and writing, to name a few. If you’re attending a conference because you have to for work or school, and you can’t find a break out session that interest you, it may be time to consider making a shift. Note: most of the points below won’t apply if you’re at the wrong conference.

2. Take notes

I took notes on my laptop at each session. I’m over taking handwritten notes because I lose them, I can’t search them and I can’t write fast enough. I also recorded every talk in case I need to go back and fill out my notes.

3. Organize your own mixer

Talks before lunch are networking gold. Find a session with a panel of speakers that are early to mid career, sit in front, and then ask your favorite speakers out to lunch. That’s how I met Danielle Grace Warren, founder and president of JustShea, a social enterprise that increases the safety and income of over 600,000 women in Ghana. I got to hear the behind the scenes of a start up social enterprise, how she manages a business in another country (she spends 4 months in Brooklyn and the rest of her time in Ghana), and, most importantly, I made a new friend and colleague.

4. Ask a good question

I mean at the end of someone’s talk get up and ask a question. I make myself do this because it forces me to pay attention. Also, this makes attending a conference more like a conversation. You can read someone’s book, blog, etc., but when do you get to ask the author your burning questions? By the way, this is about asking a question and not endless self-promotion. I’ve witnessed the obnoxious listing of accolades and affiliations and it just makes me want to stay far away from that person. Ask a thoughtful, succinct question, and then listen.

5. Really follow up with people

If you get someone’s card and say you will send an email, follow through with your word. At a recent talk on mentoring, Sharon Oberg said that only 10% of people she gives her card to ever really email her back. When you do follow up, be succinct. This is not the time to pour out your whole life story.


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