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Making the most of conferences

August 26, 2009

Escape the virtual world for a while
Despite the rise of hi-tech conferencing methods such as web seminars, nothing beats the real live experience of attending a conference. Whether you are a recent post-doc presenting a poster for the first time at an international conference, or a seasoned delegate, speaker or exhibitor, attending the right conference will bring you tremendous benefits.

Why attend a conference?
There are many reasons that you will benefit from attending a conference; learning about the latest scientific developments, hearing influential keynote speakers and finding out about new equipment or technologies  are some of the obvious benefits. The single most important reason for attending a conference, however, is to meet people who will benefit both your business and your future career. Why should you bother about meeting people? After all, modern communications technology makes it possible to develop good working relationships with people we have never met.  However good a virtual relationship may be, connections made in person will always be stronger.  And a conference venue full of like-minded people is a great way to start.

Choosing the Right Conference
Attending a big international conference can be exhilarating, but you may find that a smaller, more focussed event will be more useful. Think about the people you want to meet, and whether the conference will facilitate these meetings. Annual conferences of scientific societies are usually worth attending, but commercially organised conferences can also be very good, especially if your interests cross scientific disciplines e.g. drug discovery. You may find that there are scores of meetings that look relevant to your field, so ask colleagues or customers for their recommendations of meetings they have attended.

Finding the ‘right’ people
Meeting the right people at a conference should not be left to chance; you need to do a bit of homework before you go. Contact the people you would like to meet at least a week before you go, and ask if you can get together with them at the conference. If you are lucky, you will have access to a delegate list beforehand. If not, then you will at least be able to see who is speaking and presenting posters.  Its not all about meeting new people either, it can be a great opportunity to get to know existing contacts better, so tell people you know that you are attending the conference. Ask your contacts to make introductions to new people for you too.

Presenting a Poster
It’s worth submitting a paper or abstract, as there is a good chance that your submission will be accepted as a poster presentation and you may even get accepted for an oral presentation. Whether an individual or a company, this is a great way of getting published and promoting your work. You will have to pay a registration fee for attending the meeting, even if you are presenting a poster, but you can usually submit your abstract first and register once it is accepted. Make sure that you have a few copies of your poster to give out as people often ask for a copy.

At the Conference
Check out the programme to make sure you know which talks are most relevant, especially if the conference has several tracks. If you don’t want to raise your hand during the formal Q&A, do approach the speaker later on, as they are always willing to talk about their work and may be able to give you some expert advice on your own research too. Exhibiting companies can also be a great source of information and help, so make time to have a look around and talk to some of them – don’t just think of the exhibition as a place to grab a free pen!

Don’t be scared of the networking events. The clue is in the name, people attend because they want to meet new people and the person you chat to over a glass of wine could be a useful contact in the future. This is an opportunity to chat to people in a more social setting, and the conversation should be more social than business. If having a social chat in this environment seems more daunting than giving a presentation to an audience of hundreds, then don’t worry, you are not alone in thinking like that. Good topics to start with could be travel and places, as most people will have travelled from different places to attend the conference! You should still be able to chat a little bit about your work and what you are looking for, but keep it light and organise to contact them later if you want to discuss something in more detail.

If You are Exhibiting
Don’t take too much literature, as you will only have to ship it all back again! It’s better to take a few sample copies of catalogues etc. and mail them out after the meeting, though a small company overview brochure is useful to take in bulk. A prize draw is a good way of encouraging people to stop at your booth and it needn’t be expensive. A bottle of malt whisky is always popular, and makes a good talking point too as you shouldn’t always jump straight to the hard sell! Work out a booth schedule so that everyone has a chance to go to talks or look round the exhibition. If you are on your own, ask a neighbouring exhibitor to keep an eye on your stand for a while. Don’t just rely on people coming to your stand; make sure you attend all the networking events to maximise your chances of meeting the right people. Finally, never take your stand down until the official break-down!

Home Again
Returning home, make sure that you follow up on all the contacts you have made and send out the posters you promised. And if you didn’t get a chance to speak to the keynote speaker, it’s not too late to send them an email with your question.

This is an extended version of an article published in Nexxusnews, Autumn 2006


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