You can attend one conference this year – which one should it be?
This is an important question. Those who are lucky enough to attend an event normally only get to choose one each year. With all the options that are available, it’s important to make a good choice, one that will provide the value and takeaways that make it worthwhile.
I’m lucky enough to have attended and spoken at a large variety of events, so people often ask for my recommendations on which event to attend. Now, as the Executive Director for The eLearning Guild you might expect me to respond with something like “You should attend a Guild conference, of course!”.
In reality, I can’t in good conscious do that. I think our conferences are great, and I can tell you that the feedback we get from attendees shows they think the same. But context matters, so it’s really not a question of which event is “better”; it’s a question of which event is better for YOU.
That’s why I don’t actually answer the “which event should I attend?” questions. When someone asks me this type of question, I don’t respond with an answer; I respond with questions. If someone wants my help in finding the best event for them to attend, I try to provide the questions that will lead them to finding the best answer on their own.
There are lots of questions you can ask yourself that will help you make a good choice for which conference to attend. Here are six questions that often come up in these conversations.
The BIG Question
In these conversations, there’s one question that always kickstarts the discussion. I start with this question because it often shapes which questions I will ask next.
“Why do I want to attend a conference?”
This is the primary question you need to ask yourself. And I’m sorry, “for my professional development” doesn’t really work as an answer. It may be accurate, but it’s not specific enough. You need to go deeper, and think more tactical.
Are you looking to expand your network? Are there specific topics or skills you are interested in? Are you looking to learn how to do your current job better, or are you looking to learn about how your job will change in the future?
I usually encourage people to ask themselves “why?” a few times until they have a list of 4-5 specific and actionable things they want from attending a conference. If you can do this, that information is incredibly valuable context as you answer questions about specific events.
Event Specific Questions
All of the other questions I recommend people ask themselves are about events. Well, they’re about the individual and what they want, but the answers will ultimately start leading the conversation towards and away from different events the person could choose.
“Who runs this event?”
Every event you could consider is being organized by some person or organization. That matters. Are you more connected to one organization/community than the other? Do you want to strengthen existing relationships or expand your network into new groups? Sometimes a key factor isn’t the event itself, but the community that gathers around it.
“What is this event ABOUT?”
The key word of that question is “about”. On just about every conference website there’s an “About this event” page, even if it’s called something else. That description usually tells you the themes and purpose of the event, as well as who the event is targeted for. That’s a great thing to read and then ask yourself “Does it sound like they’re talking to me?”
“Do I like larger events or smaller events?”
I have attended events with over 10,000 attendees, and I have attended events with less that 100 attendees. Neither large nor small size events are conclusively better than the other. Both have their advantages and disadvantages which need to be applied to what you are looking for.
For example, larger events will generally have bigger programs with more content and session options, and include a large variety attendees that come from all around the country and the globe. Smaller events have their advantages as well, as they’re events where you are more likely to see some of the same attendee faces from session to session, and they often have more program elements that can leverage those connections.
Both sizes also have their disadvantages. Again, neither is better, but you should consider size in your decision making. Too often I have spoken to people that are disappointed with an event because they didn’t consider the size and how it might match their goals.
“Who are the keynote speakers?”
This question really has two separate layers of context. First, there’s the keynotes themselves. If a keynote is someone you are really interested in hearing speak, you may consider that reason enough to attend an event.
The less obvious reason to check out the keynotes is for what the keynotes represent. If the keynotes are the tent poles around which a conference program is built, those keynotes should, in theory, resonate with what the conference is all about. Read the descriptions attached to the keynotes (if available) and see how they are tied to the themes of the event. If the keynotes are connected, it usually reflects well for the connections the theme has throughout the event.
“Is there substance beyond the hype?”
Marketing is a powerful thing. It’s there to engage you and to influence your decisions. The average marketing message from a conference can be summarized like this: “Our conference is great, our speakers are great, and you’ll be great if you attend.” That’s to be expected. But if the marketing messages aren’t also explaining WHY the conference and speakers are great and HOW you will be great by attending, you should see that as a red flag.
A red flag isn’t a showstopper, but it is an indicator that you may need to do some research. In the case of a conference, the easiest way to check if there is substance beyond the hype is to check out the website. Look at the conference program. Check out what the speakers are talking about. Look at the other program elements. Compare that to the takeaways you identified in the first question. When you compare the substance to your goals, does the hype still hold up?
These Questions are Only The Beginning
While these questions are among the most common, there are a host of other questions that I often bring into these discussions. It all comes down to context. It’s not about finding out which event is the best; it’s about finding out which event is the best for you.
Do you have other questions you consider before you decide to attend an event? Please share in the comments so others can learn from your suggestion.