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The Conference-Commando Field Manual

December 31, 1998

It smells like learning! Don’t think of your next conference as a company-sponsored vacation. Think of it as an assault on the future. A collection of battle-scarred veterans offer their secrets on how to become a conference commando. We register at dawn!

by Scott Kirsner
Illustrations by Ross MacDonald
first appeared: Fast Company issue 21 page 124

It’s easy to be skeptical — even cynical — about the value of the conferences, seminars, and trade shows that so many of us spend so much of our time attending. Looking for big crowds and parties? Then go to one of the giant industry shows (Comdex, Internet World), where thousands of people exchange business cards all day and dance all night. Looking for serious debate and oh-so-intimate networking? Then wrangle an invitation to one of the highbrow gatherings that bring together industry executives (PC Forum, Agenda, TED) or political and social figures (the World Economic Forum, Renaissance Weekend) in resort settings. Looking for hands-on tools or bite-sized ideas about the future of your industry? Then attend one of the thousands of seminars that take place year-round in cities all around the world.

Don’t get the wrong idea. There’s a method to this conference-going madness. If you believe that succeeding in business is about pushing yourself to learn new things, to change, and to build a web of personal relationships, then sitting at your desk looks more like an invitation to inertia than a prescription for productivity. Going to the right conferences, and attending them in the right way, can be critical to your strategy for staying on the cutting edge — both in your company and in your career.

“We’re heads-down about our work these days,” says Chris Shipley, executive producer of the Demo conference series, which focuses on emerging technologies. “We work long hours, and we’re obsessed with specific items on our to-do lists. A conference offers a deliberate way of lifting your head, looking around, and making sure that you’re on the right track.”

Ask Mark Klein. Back in 1990, Klein went to PC Forum, the elite gathering convened every spring by technology pundit Esther Dyson. He had a mission in mind: to find Bill Gates and to show off his company’s new software. That company, Channel Computing Inc., had created an executive-information system called Forest & Trees. Klein buttonholed Gates at the registration desk, did a one-hour demo in a hotel room, and persuaded Microsoft to promote Forest & Trees as an example of what Windows 3.1 could do. Several years later, again at PC Forum, Klein used some free time at a patio table to introduce executives from Lotus Development Corp. to software made by another company of his, Edge Research Inc. Seven months later, Lotus purchased Edge.

Each October, when Maria Campbell, a book scout based in Manhattan, touches down for the mammoth Frankfurt Book Fair, she too has a mission in mind: to find titles for the 14 publishing houses that she represents. That’s why she is always accompanied by two senior staffers from her office: “There are just too many bases to touch at the show — publishers and authors and agents to meet, and manuscripts to read. We divvy up responsibilities and get together twice a day for status meetings.”

John Patrick, vice president of Internet technology for IBM, goes to more conferences in a year than most people go to in a lifetime. He doesn’t go to hear speeches or to enjoy sunny climates. He goes in search of talent — of smart people who might form a good fit with IBM. “In the networked world, it’s more important than ever to go to conferences,” says Patrick. “Reading news on the Web and participating in email discussions are great, but you can lose touch if those are your sole sources of input. You get an edge by actually being with people. Conferences are a way to get a fresh perspective, to develop long-term relationships, and to play with ideas.”

Klein, Campbell, and Patrick are not just conference attendees. They are conference commandos — people who treat a few days at an industry or professional gathering as a surgical strike that generates value for their company, that helps their career, and that shapes their perspective on the future. These conference commandos live by the guiding principles of an economy built on networks — that whom you know is as important as what you know, and that you have to update what you know by continually encountering new ideas. To help you join their ranks, Fast Company presents a training guide based on insights from these and other battle-scarred conference veterans. Think of what follows as a field manual for conference commandos.

Stage I: Planning the Mission

Which conferences are worth going to? In an era of off-site overload, that’s the obvious question to consider first. The answer: Worry less about the return on your financial investment than about the return on your time. “Forget about the registration cost,” urges Samir Arora, cofounder and CEO of NetObjects Inc., a company based in Redwood City, California that sells tools for building Web sites. “The real investment at a conference is in your time. Do your due diligence, and determine if it makes sense for you to go.”

Arora introduced his company’s first product at PC Forum in the spring of 1996, and partly as a result, he landed partnerships and distribution deals with companies like Sun Microsystems and Netscape. “You need to be clear about your reason for going,” says Arora. “Is it to debut a product, or find a distribution partner, or learn about a new subject, or schmooze with analysts? If you want publicity, you don’t want to go to a conference that excludes the press. If you’re going to learn, you want to make sure that there will be top-notch speakers who are giving substantive talks, not sales pitches. Review the materials, visit the conference Web site, call the organizers. And plug into your word-of-mouth network: Do people who have been to this conference before speak well of it?”

The next obvious question: Who should go? Some commandos work alone; others believe that there’s power in numbers. For Susan D. Goodman, bringing colleagues to a conference accelerates learning within her company, an interactive-services firm called Think New Ideas Inc. “If you send a few people, you can cover more than one track,” says Goodman, one of Think’s cofounders. “You deploy your people strategically and then meet up later to talk about what you heard.” Goodman also believes that for mid- and entry-level employees, conferences can serve as a condensed training program. “One of the ways we nurture younger people is by sending them to conferences. It’s tough to ask people to attend a night class, but sending them to one or two conferences a year is a great reward, a great perk, and a great way to develop them. Everybody wants to learn.”

Indeed, when Think New Ideas acquired Herring/Newman, a marketing agency in Seattle, Goodman found that the best way to get the agency’s employees up to speed with Internet technology was to dispatch them to conferences: “They learned the language in a snap. It was a quick ramp-up for everybody there.”

Even if you don’t bring colleagues with you, it’s a good idea to touch base with them before you leave. Circulate a copy of both the conference agenda and the exhibitor list. Someone who can’t attend the conference might want a copy of your notes from a session. Someone else might want you to track down a vendor and ask a few questions, or to do follow-up work with a potential partner or customer. “You don’t want to go to a conference without talking to other people in your company,” says Dawn Whaley, a vice president at Alexander Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide. “Are there companies that they’d like to get an update on? Potential clients to whom you should introduce yourself?”

No conference commando should leave base camp without packing the proper tools. For note taking, veterans avoid paper and rely on laptops, which allow them to file their notes in a readily accessible place and to email those notes to colleagues with ease. Similarly, a cell-phone eliminates the need to wait in pay-phone lines during breaks, or to retreat to your hotel room to check voice mail — both of which limit networking opportunities.

Until everyone owns the latest version of the PalmPilot, it’s still crucial to pack business cards. But whenever possible, IBM’s John Patrick exchanges coordinates by beaming his business card from his Pilot to his recipient’s PDA. And scanning their cards into his Pilot lets him avoid the task of entering their contact information into a database.

For working a big trade-show floor, some hard-core attendees bring a digital camera to take pictures of products that are not yet featured in brochures. Others, like entrepreneur Dan Bricklin, bring a compact video camera. Bricklin — co-creator of VisiCalc, the first electronic spreadsheet, and founder of Trellix Corp. — uses a JVC camera to capture product demos. “I bring the tapes home to my development team, and we analyze them to understand our competitors’ products better,” he explains.

Finally, on the flight out to the conference, be sure to review your goals. “List the questions that you hope the conference will answer, the problems that you’re trying to solve,” suggests Steve Miller, a Seattle-based trade-show consultant who attends as many as 50 conferences and trade shows a year, and the author of “How to Get the Most Out of Trade Shows” (NTC Business Books, 1990). “It gets you focused on why you’re going. Then you can begin working to get answers and solutions in the sessions, on the show floor, or in casual encounters with other attendees. The biggest mistake you can make is to arrive at a conference without a list of objectives: You’ll spend three days just floating.”

Stage II: Hitting the Ground

When Maria Campbell arrives at the Frankfurterhof for each year’s Book Fair, she announces her presence to Herr Karl, the hotel’s omniscient concierge: “I let him know that I’m there, and he makes sure that I get all of my packages and messages. It’s a tradition.” And not a bad one: Touching base with a concierge is a way to ensure that you will be treated well — that faxes and overnight packages won’t disappear into a black hole, for example. If the phone in your room has voice mail, record a message that lets callers know when you’re most likely to be there, and give them the option of calling your cell-phone or sending email. Hearing your voice — rather than an anonymous “This is the voice mail for room 653” — will dissuade callers from hanging up.

True conference commandos aren’t bound by the agenda that they receive at registration. Who says you can’t arrange your own dinner discussion on a particular topic, or put together a group on an issue that matters to you? Jim Sterne, an Internet-marketing consultant and author based in Santa Barbara, California, calls such events “birds-of-a-feather sessions.” “Maybe you’re interested in a technical issue or in finding out more about your counterparts’ experiences with a certain vendor,” posits Sterne. “Post a note on the central bulletin board — or on all the bulletin boards: ‘Hey, let’s talk about firewall security for Linux servers at this place, at this time.’ If only a few people show up, go out to lunch or dinner. If a large group turns up, you can have a lively discussion session. People will really open up and speak their minds.”

Conference commandos don’t attend formal sessions just to learn new things from other people — they also use such events to market their own presence at the conference. When sessions open up for Q&A, commandos tend to be among the first people to have their hands in the air. And when they ask questions, they never fail to state their name, their company, and what they do. “Every time I do this, people come up to give me their cards, ask questions, and take my card,” says Aliza Sherman, president of Cybergrrl Inc., a new-media entertainment company based in Manhattan.

Even better than asking a question in a session is addressing the session yourself. Being invited to speak at a conference is a great way both to deliver a message and to interact with people you want to meet — if you give a good speech.

Commandos do extensive background checks before they speak. “How many people attended the event last year? How many years has it been around?” asks Jim Sterne, who has been the top-rated speaker at Mecklermedia Corp.’s Internet World conferences for six years in a row. “You also want to be sure that you’re addressing an audience of people who are interested in your message. Always ask the organizers what kind of people come and what those people want to learn about.”

Sterne understands that no one comes to his sessions to hear him give a sales pitch. So, instead, he tells stories, reads poems, and shows Web sites. Likewise, more and more commandos are experimenting with audio, video, and animation in their presentations. Nor are they afraid to abandon new technology in favor of old-fashioned whiteboards or easels — or nothing at all.

“PowerPoint slides put people to sleep,” says Aliza Sherman. “Be dynamic. You should let your personality come through. At most conferences, people see the same thing four sessions a day. You have to stand out.” Her advice: Either go breathtakingly high-tech or dramatically low-tech.

When you’re done, don’t promise that you’ll send people a copy of your presentation — a promise that’s hard to live up to once you return to the pressures of daily life. Instead, point them to a Web site. “Why should you be faxing or mailing paper?” asks John Patrick. “It just creates work.” On his personal Web site (johnpatrick.com), Patrick posts his presentation, his contact information, and links to examples used in his talk.

With some conferences, it’s hard to get an invitation to attend, let alone a chance to speak. That’s why resourceful commandos use stealth strategies. A few months before an event, Aliza Sherman checks in with conference organizers to find out if there have been any cancellations. That way, even if she hasn’t been scheduled to give a presentation, she may able to secure a speaker’s slot.

“You want to let them know that you’re available if someone drops out,” she says. Dan Bricklin offers similar advice: “I hang out in the speaker’s lounge, and sometimes I wind up on a panel that I wasn’t scheduled to be on, because the panel is short by a person.” A true conference commando would never miss such an opportunity.

Stage III: Working the Floor

Plenty of people who attend extravaganzas like Comdex skip the trade-show floor entirely, or else they quickly pass through it on the first day. But there’s value to be mined beneath the glossy brochures and the glitzy booths — if you know how to find it.

David Bohnett, founder and chairman of GeoCities, a Web community, avoids large booths almost entirely. He focuses on the outside edges of the hall. “That’s where the GeoCities or the Yahoo! of the future is,” he says. “The guys who can only afford a 10-by-10 booth are infinitely more interesting than the companies that buy the megabooths.” And smaller companies tend to staff their booths with their CEO or their founders, rather than with low-level staffers.

Conference commandos cut to the chase when dealing with booth personnel. Rather than enduring a canned pitch, they state their intentions. “Say what you’re looking for, what problem you’re trying to solve,” says Allen Konopacki, president of the Incomm Center for Trade Show Research and Sales Training in Chicago. “One good technique is to write down a few things that you’re looking for on the back of your business card. The booth staffer will typically take it around, trying to find the right person to talk to you. Somehow that card becomes an official order: People take it seriously.”

Commandos also know how to gather competitive intelligence from booths on the show floor. “That’s the best way to see all of your competitors in one place,” says Felix Lin, CEO of AvantGo Inc., a company that develops software for the PalmPilot and other handheld devices. “You can listen to how they talk to their customers. You can sit in on their demo. How are they positioning themselves? I also pay attention to who’s staffing their booth, and I assess their strengths and weaknesses.”

Allen Konopacki, who attended more than 100 conferences and trade shows in 1998, suggests an even subtler method for gathering intelligence. “When you’re at a competitor’s booth, or at the booth of a vendor you’re considering, compliment the people in the booth effusively,” he says. “Tell them what a great product they have, what a great exhibit theirs is. You’ll find that they’ll often contradict you: ‘Well, actually, this product isn’t moving well, and we’re thinking of taking it off the market.’ You’ll get the straight scoop, as opposed to what you’d get if you came in with a negative approach.”

Stage IV: Take a Break

“There is a fiction in the mind of the conference attendee that a conference is great because of great presenters,” insists Richard Saul Wurman, the creator and organizer of the much-acclaimed TED (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) conference series. “Conferences are great because of the people you sit next to, because of the people you meet in the hall.”

Conference commandos embrace that principle. Their real work comes during the breaks. “You have to know how — or learn how — to be a schmoozer,” says Jack Powers, conference chairman at Mecklermedia, which produces the Internet World conference and exhibition series. “Hang out at the coffee machine, make small talk, tell jokes. I find people who asked good questions during the sessions, or I scope out badges and look for people from companies that I admire. You have to be able to start a rap based on anything — the weather, the session, the food, the hotel — and go from there.”

If you’re at a conference with people from your company, don’t let yourself associate only with them. “Moving around in a pack just doesn’t work,” says Susan Goodman. “It inhibits mingling. If you’re there with a group, don’t huddle with your colleagues. Fan out at breaks, at lunch, at the cocktail hour. It’s okay to check in a few times a day, but don’t let your coworkers insulate you from the chance to meet new people.”

Breaks offer an especially good chance for guerrilla marketing. Aliza Sherman doles out Cybergrrl T-shirts and buttons to fellow conferees. “Then we’ve got our message circulating all over the place,” she says. “I make just as much of an impact as someone with a $100,000 booth.” Dan Bricklin goes a few steps further. “I give impromptu product demos in the hallway,” he says, adding that he carries along both his laptop and a small LCD projector with a screen. “These demos start out with just one or two people, but they can build to include an audience of about 10 or 20,” says Bricklin, whose trademark conference garb consists of a flannel shirt and blue jeans. “You have to be willing to stand out, but it works.”

Commandos tend to participate in the outside activities offered by conference organizers: golf tournaments, city tours, hikes. But they also organize social events on their own. “The last thing you want to do at a conference is to watch TV in your room and order room service,” says Lee Silverman, manager of business development at GTE Internetworking’s learning-systems group. “So, throughout the day, I try to put together a group of people for a dinner. I mention it to everyone I meet: ‘Hey, a bunch of us are going to gather in the lobby at eight and go out on the town.’ ” Others assemble jogging groups or start impromptu games of doubles tennis.

At the end of each day, it’s essential to review your progress. “Sit down in your hotel room and think about the people you’ve met, the things you’ve learned,” advises Steve Miller. “Do a running analysis of what you’ve accomplished and what needs to be done.”

Stage V: Back to Base

Cindy Johnson, who works in knowledge management for Fujitsu Network Communications Inc., based in Richardson, Texas, is a prolific note taker at conferences. Every night, she writes up summaries of what she learned that day. After she returns home, she circulates one version of her trip report to people inside her company, and she distributes another, slightly less classified version to an email discussion list for knowledge-management professionals. During a conference, John Patrick sends colleagues at IBM quick-fire emails that are filled with interesting quotes, announcements, statistics, and insights. Both of these conference commandos want to share the intelligence that they’ve gathered.

“I work for a big company,” explains Patrick, “and we can’t all go to these conferences. So, in addition to sending off dispatches, I write a one-page email of my thoughts on things I learned that are relevant to what’s going on at IBM. That email goes out to a dozen or so executives in the company.”

Johnson makes sure that she’s composed her trip report before her plane lands back in Texas. “If you don’t do it before you get back, you’ll be overwhelmed by all the work that has piled up while you were away.” Johnson also uses the flight home to enter business cards into a contact database. And if the flight is long enough, she tries to write follow-up emails to people she met during her trip.

If a conference has been a team event, then a wrap-up meeting is essential. After Maria Campbell and her colleagues return from the Frankfurt Book Fair, they assemble for a two-hour post-event meeting. They list which new manuscripts they need to read for clients and which promises made at the conference require their immediate attention. “We need to get synchronized again after the conference,” Campbell says.

She and her fellow commandos don’t take this follow-up work lightly. They go to conferences to make connections between people and between concepts, so they do whatever they can to extend relationships and to continue discussions beyond the event.

“You know you’ve been to a really valuable conference if you come back not only with a stack of business cards and lots of reasons to contact people, but also with a sense of being stimulated to ask questions of yourself,” says Susan Goodman. “A good conference has a thousand offshoots. It’s an opportunity to network, to learn, to participate in the development of your industry, to step outside of your company — and outside of yourself.”

Scott Kirsner ([email protected]) writes on business from Boston’s North End. Of course, he’s seldom at home — he’s too busy attending conferences.