Conferences present an excellent opportunity for learning and for building connections. They can contribute to your career growth, if you know how to make the most of them.

Below I look at 7 ways to make the most of a conference as an attendee who is not presenting. In writing this post, I have assumed you want to attend because the topic is interesting and relevant to your professional role.

1. Set your learning goals

Once you decide to attend, determine 2-3 learning goals for the conference. What problem(s) do you want to address and/or what do you want to learn about?

During the conference, take notes and record your take-aways. Revisit your learning goals at the end of each day and modify these as relevant.

2. Decide how you want to build connections

Building connections, some say, trumps learning at conferences. Whether you agree or not (I find it’s both), conferences present an excellent opportunity to meet people who share your interests.

How you build relationships is a very personal process. Figure out what works for you–and take action.

3. Select the sessions you want to attend well before the conference

Well before the conference begins (i.e., weeks before it starts), review the program with your learning or connecting-with-others goals in mind and select the sessions you want to attend. You may wish to categorize sessions as “definitely attend” or “maybe attend”. Create a schedule for yourself using the conference app or another mechanism that works better for you.

Sometimes, your learning and networking goals take a back seat and you will attend a session to support a colleague. That’s great too!

Remember to stay flexible because new interests will likely be sparked and connections made that can alter your original plans.

4. Be friendly, reach out

As an introvert, going to a conference where I don’t have a lot of pre-existing friendships can be stressful. In those cases, I’m so grateful to the friendly person who introduces herself when I join a table.

I try to be that friendly person who reaches out to others when I’m at a conference. Instead of checking emails in the few minutes before the session starts, I gather up my courage and strike up a conversation with my neighbour or table mates.

5. Mindfully engage with social media

Another way to build relationships and share your learning is via social media. I do this in the following ways:

  • Before the conference, I connect on LinkedIn with a presenter I’m excited to learn from or an organizer whose work I’m appreciative of. In both cases, I always write a note with my invitation to connect.
  • Before the conference, tweet about a session I’m looking forward to attending.
  • Tweet about my learning during or after a session at the conference (because I know that, as a presenter, it is so nice to know what aspects of one’s work are resonating).
  • Write about something that really stood out for me on my blog after the conference (and share it out, of course).

6. Determine how to integrate your learning

Presumably, some of what you learn at the conference can be applied to your work. It’s important to take time to consider what changes, if any, you would like to make to your professional practice based on new insights, knowledge, and/or skills you have gained.

7. Thank your employer if you received support

If you are fortunate to have received financial or other support from your employer, thank the individual(s) who approved your participation. Let them know a few things you learned and how you intend to apply this to your work.

You can also thank your employer by sharing some of what you learned with your colleagues. You might do this at a team meeting, or through the intranet, or at an informal brown-bag session, or in a blog post.


  • The conference notebook: Based on a resource developed by Todd Zakrajsek, PhD, this reflection tool is helpful to use pre- and post- the conference. I’ve used it several times and, admittedly, am better at using before the event than after.
  • How to get the most out of a conference. This article focusses on networking and offers ways to approach this aspect of conference participation.
  • Learning from academic conferences (book). My friend and former colleague, Dr. Alice Cassidy, contributed several chapters to this one!


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