Industry conferences can be pricey. Attendance fees can be thousands of dollars, and that's in addition to travel costs. There's also lost opportunity cost, because you're not getting your normal work done while you attend.

Back in the day, I attended as many as 10 industry conferences every year. Since the average conference runs about three days and travel another two (I live in the boonies), I was spending roughly a fifth of my work year at industry conferences.

Since I hate wasting time, I made certain my conference time was well spent by following these seven simple rules:

1. Know exactly why you're attending.

As with anything else in business, you get what you focus on. Going to a conference to "shake off the cobwebs" of your current thinking demands a different approach than, say, going to a conference to network for new customers.

The more precisely you define your goals, the more they'll guide your actions so that you move toward achieving those goals.

2. Take full control of your travel arrangements.

Almost every time I've depended on conference organizers or corporate travel agents to plan my trips, I've run into problems. I've learned that taking control of my travel arrangements assures that I get to where I'm going with minimum hassle.

3. Research the presenters and sessions.

If you've decided to attend a conference, you probably already have an idea of who's going to speak and their likely topics. However, you'll get more out of the conference if you research the speakers and their topics ahead of time.

Researching the speakers can help you find points of connection, should you want to speak to them after the session. Researching the topic can prepare the groundwork for better understanding it and even provide you the gist of what the speaker's going to say.

On more than one occasion, I've decided which breakout sessions to attend on the basis of whether a speaker is giving a talk that's already available elsewhere, for example, on YouTube or as a white paper.

After all, why waste time with something I can get elsewhere? Better to attend another breakout session, where I might hear something new and different.

4. Practice your conversational "elevator pitch."

Unless you're planning to remain anonymous, you'll be introducing yourself to other attendees. When you're asked the inevitable question "What you do for a living?" you can respond one of three ways:

  1. Blurt out your job title and hope for the best.
  2. Bore the other person with a motor-mouth elevator pitch.
  3. Conversationally position yourself as somebody worth talking to.

Obviously, you want to go with option number 3. As I've explained previously, this kind of conversational "elevator pitch" consists of three parts, delivered as part of a normal conversation. Here's a video explaining the technique:

5. Stay focused on your purpose.

Once you're at the conference, keep your purpose (the goals you set for rule number 1) uppermost in your mind. Let your goals guide your decisions about whom to talk with, whom to listen to, and how to spend your valuable time.

6. Take handwritten notes.

Scientific studies have shown that you learn more effectively and retain more information when you take notes by hand with a pen or pencil. Taking notes on a computer is not nearly as effective, and if you depend upon handouts as an aide de memoire, you might as well not bother to attend, because you'll remember almost nothing of what was said.

7. Schedule action items immediately.

When you make a decision at the conference, such as scheduling a meeting, or even something as simple as deciding to keep in touch with another attendee, don't wait until after the conference is over to take action, because chances are you'll forget.

Either take action immediately or formally schedule that action. And then take action at the first opportunity.

For example, suppose you've traded business cards with another attendee and have promised to provide him or her with some information. Don't just write a note on the back of the business card and trust you'll get around to it.

Instead, call up your scheduling program (or pull out your day planner) and schedule a time to take that action. Ideally, you should schedule those actions for either that evening (in the hotel) or as soon as you return home. This is one time when you can't afford to procrastinate. Consider: You just spent a lot of time and money to go a conference. The longer you wait to reap the benefits of attending, the less benefit you'll get from the conference.