How to get the most out of conferences

Plan ahead to expand your network and make a good impression.
By Anslee Wolfe

As CPAs head into conference season, it's important to do more than simply show up, attend sessions, and then go home.

Not being prepared for conferences can lead to missed opportunities, both professionally and personally, according to Lynne Waymon, CEO and co-founder of Contacts Count LLC, an international training and consulting firm.

Waymon shared her insights on how to make conference attendance pay off during a recent JofA podcast. Here are some of her tips, which largely focus on building connections with people and expanding your network.

Networking begins before the conference. One of Waymon's favorite strategies is looking over the program in advance to see if there's anyone she wants to connect with. She may call people ahead of time to invite them to a meal during the event, a step she knows can be scary for some.

"Sometimes being scared means you're on to something important," she said. "You are pushing the envelope. You are gaining a new skill."

She also likes to invite others with similar interests when meeting with someone so they all benefit from good conversation, expanding everyone's network.

Be prepared to be spontaneous. Planned sessions such as workshops and keynote speakers are vital because they provide information and even inspiration. But the downtime—receptions, before and after workshops, in the hallways—offers many opportunities to connect with others in attendance.

People may hesitate to reach out to others, but knowing ahead of time what you want to talk about or ask can help you feel more comfortable, allowing for spontaneity to flow from there.

Waymon likes to introduce herself to whomever she sits next to and already has questions in mind—such as what city the person is from or what he would like to learn at the conference—"so I don't have to think up a conversation starter in the moment," she said.

Know tricks for sharing your name and remembering others' names. Having people remember your name and you remember theirs is critical for networking.

"We like people to use what we call the Forrest Gump rule," Waymon said.

The movie character introduces himself as, "I'm Forrest, Forrest Gump." Saying your first name twice gives you an advantage in a noisy, crowded room.

Likewise, have some tricks ready to remember other people's names. It may be helpful to ask for the spelling or origin of the name and to exchange business cards.

"How can you build a relationship with somebody if you don't know their name?" Waymon said.

Provide details about yourself and seek them from others. Answering questions with concrete details helps make a lasting impression. If you're at a CPA conference, others in attendance presume you are likely a public accountant, but there are many specialties within the CPA world. Be ready to go more in-depth.

Waymon, who co-authored the book Make Your Contacts Count, recommends a two-sentence answer when asked what you do.

"The first sentence tells one talent or skill that you are really good at," she said, "and then the second sentence tells a time that you saved the day or solved the problem or served the client."

A detailed answer, for example, could be: "At my CPA firm, one of our specialties is advising businesses about how to grow. One client who's been with us since 2006 has already doubled the size of her business."

In turn, ask thoughtful questions. Once, when Waymon asked another participant what he was looking forward to after the conference, he said, "My wife and I are adopting a baby." Waymon shared what she knew about nannies and other things beneficial to new parents, leading to a memorable conversation.

Connections like this on both personal and business levels are about building trust, and when that happens, people want to help you.

"They want to respond to you. They want to take your phone call. They want to introduce you to someone," Waymon said.

Follow up after the conference. Navigating what to do after an event can feel overwhelming. Waymon suggested setting manageable goals, such as checking in with three people you met or implementing two ideas you took away.

Also, share a few things you learned with your co-workers, especially if it is specific to that person's job.

"It's always a good idea to be looking for resources for other people's agendas, other people's needs—a great way to tell co-workers you care about their success, too," she said.

Anslee Wolfe is a freelance writer in Colorado Springs, Colo. To comment on this article, contact Chris Baysden, senior manager of newsletters at the AICPA.

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