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How to Stop Wasting Time at Conferences

If you aren't learning enough from the conferences you attend, you're probably making the same mistake everyone else does. Don't.
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Business conferences often have more choirs than a church.

Last year I went to a huge multi-day event featuring more than 50 main speakers, dozens of seminar speakers, a wide variety of breakout sessions and workshops... fitting everything into a schedule was almost as tough as getting all the schwag into my carry-on.

On the first day I sat in the main hall and listened to a famous CEO speak passionately about the power of focus. The crowd loved him.

After the applause died down most people stood to leave even though another speaker—one I was really looking forward to—was due to start in minutes. I asked the lady beside me why she was leaving.

“Oh, I don’t have any interest in what that guy has to say,” she said over her shoulder. “He’s all about bootstrapping but the only way a startup ever succeeds is through significant early funding.” 

Within minutes the hall was again packed. I asked the man beside me why he chose to attend this session. “Simple: Where a startup is concerned, less is more, baby. Less is more.” Based on the standing ovation that speaker received afterwards, the crowd agreed.

For the next two days I heard plenty of speakers preaching to plenty of choirs.

I also learned some interesting things. Focusing on core competencies is the sure path to success but so is embracing ambiguity and constantly playing in different sandboxes. Top-line growth is the best way to boost revenue but so is cutting cost like a beaver in a virgin forest. Empowering employees and fostering a climate of intelligent risk-taking is the best way to improve performance but so is following best practices and consistently adhering to comprehensive processes.

So what did I learn from a number of the sharpest minds in business? 

Evidently every one of them is always right. And every one of them is always wrong. Based on a totally unscientific survey I took, even when really smart people with differing opinions are available most people tended to gravitate towards the people and information that validates their own perspectives and outlooks.

It’s a natural tendency and one that’s not all bad. When there are no boots left to strap, staying the course is a little easier when you know the approach you’re taking has seen others through lean times.

And there’s another reason: If, say, you feel maintaining a health work-life balance is extremely important, you can watch "The Social Network" and "Pirates of Silicon Valley" all you want but you’ll never find yourself mainlining energy drinks to stay up for two nights in a row. Trying to become something you’re not—and really don’t even want to be—just because it worked for someone else is the sure path to failure.

But so is always sitting in the choir. 

Here’s a way to make sure you’re never always right and always wrong. Say you attend a conference with multiple speakers and can choose which sessions to attend. (Or say you will read a few business books, download a few podcasts, etc.)

Pick two sessions that sound interesting. The fact they sound interesting probably means the topics align nicely with your business perspectives.

Then pick a session you normally wouldn’t attend, and hopefully even think, “I won’t get anything out of this... this guy is crazy.”

Before you walk into the crazy session or read the crazy book, commit to acting on two approaches or strategies. Listen closely and pick two.

Then go back to work and give those ideas a real chance. Put in the same effort as if they were your ideas.

Sometimes what you try will work, sometimes it won’t. Either way you’ll stretch yourself, both in terms of perspective and in terms of skill, without straying too far from what already works well for you. 

You don’t need to become something you’re not—but we can all become better versions of ourselves.

 

Last updated: Nov 17, 2011

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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