Organic Broadcaster

Reap more rewards from your conference investment

By Chris Blanchard, Purple Pitchfork

Every winter, I look forward to making the rounds of farming conferences near and far. I get to see old friends, get new ideas, make new connections, and find inspiration for the year ahead. I’ve never been to a farming conference where I didn’t take away enough information to pay back the time and money I spent to get there. Even for the most expensive conferences, the investment pays back quickly, and the new knowledge becomes a permanent asset that provides returns year after year.

Unfortunately, it’s pretty easy to go to a conference and let the knowledge and connections slip right on by. Approaching a conference like an investment can help you make the most of game-changing suggestions, enriching connections, and big opportunities, even if you have to get right into the greenhouse or field upon your return.

Preparing For a Conference
As in the rest of farming, taking a little time to prepare will dramatically increase your likelihood of getting great results from your conference investment.

Set Goals – Once you’ve decided to go to a conference, decide what questions you hope to get answered. I find that it’s easier to get concrete results when I identify specific questions, rather than just an area of interest: “How should I organize my packing shed to maximize workflow and ergonomics?” rather than, “I want to know more about packing shed organization.”

You might want to challenge yourself with other goals, as well. I will ask questions in three workshops, I will meet five other dairy farmers, and I will walk by every booth in the exhibit hall are all worthy objectives.

Plan Your Time – Take time to review the workshops as well as everything else on offer. Many conferences have a lot more going on than just workshops. It’s easy to miss these other opportunities, especially if they happen while the workshops are going.

Organizers often post the conference program, with expanded workshop descriptions and updated schedules, in the days or weeks before an event. Figure out where you’re likely to get your questions answered, and what presenters you might want to connect with after their workshop is over. Once you get to an event, you’re probably going to be challenged to find your way around and navigate the crowds – reading a substantial program is probably not on the menu once you’re on-site.

More and more events are offering a conference app for your smart phone, which can make a nice addition to your conference planning by providing another lens to look through as you make your plans – plus, some conference apps allow you to download handouts before the conference, giving you a chance to preview workshop information in more depth. You may also be able to highlight exhibitors, workshops, and other things you want to make sure you don’t miss.

You may also want to make appointments to meet people ahead of time, especially at a big event. It’s easy to miss people if you just leave it to chance.

Prepare Your Kit – Finally, pack your business cards, a pen, and some paper. I really like to carry a clipboard with lots of fresh paper available, since the notes pages in the back of the conference program don’t always have a lot of room. You’ll probably want a tote bag or a pocket file to stuff all of the brochures from the exhibit hall—I really like the expanding files that close with a flap and an elastic band. When that one key idea or one life-changing contact comes along, you don’t want to be stuck without the tools you need to make the most of it—and you don’t want to be fumbling with a pile of papers under your seat when it’s time to go to the next workshop!

At the Show
The show isn’t all about work, but a few key actions can dramatically increase the long-term value you derive from an event.

Engage the Material – Yep, it’s just like being back in school. You can increase your retention by actively engaging with each workshop you attend, rather than passively taking in information. Interpret key points for how they apply to your situation, rather than just writing them down. Rather than just writing, “Point shovel points down to move more soil into the row,” add a note: “would help with weedy broccoli!”

Identify Actions – I take prolific notes, so it can be hard to identify the concrete actions I need to take, whether it’s following up an idea or reconnecting with a contact. Even where I don’t write down a lot of information, I like to write a dash (-) to the left of each action item; when I scan my notes after the conference, I can quickly identify items to put on my task list, and show that I’ve done it by turning the dash (-) into a plus (+).

Ask Questions – Please, ask questions! Speakers dread having a disengaged audience. There are few things more unnerving than leaving the requested 10 minutes for questions at the end of a talk and facing a silent audience. Remember the questions you wrote down in preparation? Now is the time to get them answered.
Make Connections – Don’t immerse yourself in your phone or the conference materials between sessions. Smile, be open, approach people and be approachable. Everybody’s there to make connections, and a room full of strangers can be a lonely place. Walk right up, introduce yourself, and ask about the other person.

Make the Most of Connections – Use your business cards liberally. Handing out a card is a great way to get one from somebody else. I like to write notes on the back of the card to help remember the context, or why I want to follow up with someone.

Process Connections in Real Time – At the end of each day, empty the business cards from your wallet, and quickly sort them into three piles: the first for those that you absolutely plan to follow up with, the second for those that you want to put into your address book, and the third for, “who is this person?” Throw the third pile away, and keep the other two accessible for when you get home.

For the cards in the first group, write a note on the back about your intended action, something like “send info on transplants for sale,” or “ask for about cultivating tools resource.”

Lightly Process Notes and Materials – Empty out your tote bag or pocket file every night, so that you’ve got room for the next day. Clear off your clipboard of the day’s notes. Glance over your notes to provide a quick refresh, and lock in that knowledge. If you’ve got some obvious dump items, throw them away now, so that they aren’t clogging up your systems later.

When You Get Home
You’ll get the most from the conference if you can follow up in short order, while the information and connections are still fresh. Reviewing your notes, information, and connections shortly after the event is a great way to increase retention and internalize important messages. Processing soon after the event also ensures you don’t get caught up in the work that has been waiting for you before you have a chance to fully realize the value of being at the event. By changing the context and the format of the information, your brain uses different pathways to log the same information, improving your ability to remember and access it later.

Identify Actions – Pull out those notes, review the actions you identified, and decide if they’re still meaningful. Put the ones you want to follow up on into your task management system.

Connect with Connections – Follow up with connections. If you had a specific request or intended action, make it happen. Waiting until weeks after the conference will allow you to slip from people’s minds, and any urgency they might have felt to respond can easily go by the wayside. Add everybody else to your address list, and consider reaching out to them on Facebook or through a quick email.

A good conference can be a great place to get inspired, follow some intellectual rabbit trails, and meet a ton of new people – but you want to make the most of your investment. Those of us in the world of farming have chosen a life where knowledge and connections can turn into actions to improve the planet, provide real food, and build community, as well as to provide a return to our businesses. A little bit of additional effort – before, during, and after the event – can boost the outcomes a conference creates on your farm and in your life.

Chris Blanchard provides consulting and education for farming, food, and business through Purple Pitchfork. 

From the November | December 2015 Issue

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