10 Rules For Attending a Conference

I’ve got a few conferences I’ll be attending in the coming months, so I thought it would be a good time to review the etiquette and unwritten rules for conference attendees. Here are my top ten, in no particular order:

1. Never ask a question right before lunch or cocktail hour. This one should be fairly obvious, but someone always ignores this unwritten rule and invariably gets eye rolls and sighs from their fellow conference-goers. No one is paying attention at that point anyways as everyone is just counting down the minutes until they can get to the food or booze and take a break.

2. Don’t ask a question to make yourself sound intelligent. If you already know the answer to your question, don’t bother asking it just to try to impress everyone else at the conference. No one is really listening to the Q&A anyways. At that point everyone is on their smart phone.

3. Don’t ask a question of every single speaker. Every conference has that one person who hogs the Q&A at every session. Spread the wealth and share the mic.

4. Don’t corner the speaker after they’re finished. It’s not a good look to hog the speaker after their finished while forty other people sit there and wait for their chance to meet them. A simple, ‘I’m a huge fan of your work’ will suffice. 

5. Find an aisle seat. It’s worth it to show up 10-15 minutes early before the first speaker to make sure you get a good spot. You don’t want to trip over fifteen people to leave during the middle of someone’s speech to take a phone call or use the restroom. The aisles are prime real estate, especially at the larger events.

6. Make friends with the sales and marketing teams. The sales and marketing people don’t care about the conference agenda or the speakers. They’re there to mingle, add a few new clients and schmooze with existing clients. If you play your cards right this group will take you out for free dinners and drinks on their company’s dime.

7. But don’t try to hang with them all night. These people wine and dine for a living. Don’t try to stay up partying with them all night. That 3:00 am game of poker they invite you to is not worth it. They’re much more practiced at this than you are and they all sleep in the next day while you have to show up at a breakfast round-table at 7:00 am.

8. Keep your ringer in the vibrate or off position. Someone’s cell phone always rings in the middle of a speech and that person always looked shocked when it happens. Then it takes them seven rings before they can find it to silence the call. Don’t be that person. It’s a rookie move.

9. Bring plenty of business cards. Yes, the speeches can be interesting and informative, but you don’t go to conferences strictly for the speakers. Conferences are all about networking. Business cards are old school at this point, but it’s the easiest way to get contact info on a large group of people who could potential help your business (or vice versa). Send a follow-up email a few days after the conference and see what happens.

10. Figure out which speaker on day two in the afternoon you’re going to skip so you can go take a nap or workout. You need a break when attending an industry conference that can last for 2-3 days. Between breakfast, an entire day of speeches, cocktail hour and then dinners there’s not much time to catch your breath. The day two afternoon time slot is the perfect time for a re-charge so you don’t become some sort of conference zombie.

Further Reading:
The Post-2008 Investment Conference Line-Up
Raising Arizona


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What's been said:

Discussions found on the web
  1. spazaru commented on Nov 24

    Rule 11. Don’t go to a conference. You must have SOMETHING more interesting to do, like have a root canal.

  2. Howard commented on Nov 25

    There are no free dinners! I consider it a conflict of interest to be taken out by sales and marketing people. Shame on you.

  3. Jim Wang commented on Nov 28

    I view conferences as a place to meet people (network) and build in-person relationships. Even with email, messaging, and all the technology, shaking someone’s hand and looking them in the eye is crucial for building relationships.

    Another thing that’s crucial – just being a regular cool person someone would want to hang out with. Not handing out business cards at every turn, not talking about yourself and how awesome you are, but just being friendly and cordial.

    Don’t forget mints and chapstick too. 🙂

    • Ben commented on Nov 29

      Good call…I’m very partial to the never-ending bowls of mints on the tables.