How a wish list helps you make the most of any conference

Ross McCall looks at the ContentEd programme in the registration area at ContentEd Conference.

By Ross McCall, Senior Content Strategist at Pickle Jar Communications 

Whether your employer foots the bill for a conference or you’re going on your own dime, you want to come away knowing you got value for money. That partly depends on the quality of the event itself; the speakers, the networking opportunities, the content. But as a delegate you have little control over most of that.

So how can you ensure you leave any conference satisfied that you got what you came for?

Here are a few questions to ask yourself in advance that will set you for success as you arrive at a conference like ContentEd.

What's on your wish list?

In June 2018 I arrived at the ContentEd conference in London fresh off a plane from Florida, where I had been creating content for a large non-profit organisation. After attending a conference similar to ContentEd I had declared myself a content strategist. As the clock ticked down on my work visa I began looking for opportunities back in the UK.

I had contacts in the education sector in Newcastle who helped me find others via platforms like LinkedIn. By the time I arrived at ContentEd I had a basic plan of how I would use the two days to help me find the right opportunity.

I had a wish list of people I wanted to talk to, including Sarah Richards, who’s a keynote again at ContentEd 2019. I also had questions I wanted to explore that I hoped would lead me to my next content strategy adventure.

My wish list looked something like this:

  • I want to talk to in-house content strategists and agency people so I can begin understanding the two environments
  • I need to talk with people working in the city I live in
  • I want to find out how content strategy jobs are advertised
  • I want to know the different roles I could apply for
  • I have a company I’m interested so I want to meet their staff and the person who could hire me

So what needs to be on your conference wish list?

  • Do you have a question or problem you want help solving?
  • Are there specific people you want to meet?
  • Is there a topic you want to learn about?
  • Do you have a problem in a current content project that you want input about?
  • Do you have a best-case scenario for the conference?

Let’s think about some of those questions in more detail.

Who do you want to meet?

When I attended ContentEd there were two parts to my strategy for the two days.

1. I asked my contacts from specific institutions and agencies who they were sending to ContentEd, then spoke to as many people on that list as I could during the event.

I wanted them to get to know me as much as I wanted to get to know them. I hoped they might think of me for a job somewhere down the line, or even meet me during an application process. But I also asked them lots of specific questions about the work they were doing and things worked in their environment.

2. When I wasn’t talking to someone on that list, I tried not to hide. I wanted to make as many contacts in roles like the ones I was interested in, wherever they were from.

It’s easy to hide at a conference, whether you’re travelling alone or with a team.

If you’re attending a conference in a team there’s a tension between making space to discuss things together, while also trying to meet people you won’t see everyday at work.

If you’re alone, as I was at ContentEd, initiating with people can be tiring. I’m a social person, but that doesn’t mean I like starting conversations with new people one after another. Fortunately, at ContentEd people tended to introduce themselves and start conversations with me if I was standing alone.

So who’s on your wish list of people to meet at ContentEd or whichever conference you’re attending?

What do you need to learn?

This is where taking time to look through the programme in detail pays dividends. When I came to ContentEd I chose a mixture of sessions on topics I knew little about, like influencer mapping, and others on existing skills I  wanted a fresh perspective on, like telling stories digitally.

So what questions have you been wrestling with as a content strategist?

Which sessions and tracks are most likely to help you accelerate your learning in those areas? Which speakers do you want to introduce yourself to and maybe grab a coffee with?

If you’re buying a team pass for a conference, divide and conquer by checking out the programme and planning together.

What unexpected opportunities might await you?

A good conference should give you whatever you came for. A great conference will surprise you with things you didn’t expect when you bought your ticket.

Talking to as many people as possible, with or without a clear agenda, is essential to finding those surprises. Conversations over lunch can reveal unexpected connections. Peers will listen to the issues you’re facing with content strategy and share an experience or recommend the resource you might otherwise never have found.

And whether you’re looking for a new opportunity, or searching for the right person for a role you’re hiring for, there are few better places to look than a conference full of people who share your passions and know your sector.

Many conferences in our sector also feature an awards ceremony. They acts as a means of recognising great work, and allowing others to learn from it.

So that’s why ContentEd 2019 features the first ever ContentEd Awards. If you haven’t already heard about the awards, find out what the judges are looking for and consider submitting an entry.

I arrived at ContentEd with a plan. I wanted to meet other content strategists I could connect with again in the future. But more than that I wanted to find a job. So I spoke to whoever I thought might have helpful advice or be able to open a door for me.

In my case I knew the company I really wanted to work for, so I got to know their staff and spoke to their CEO.

A month later I was offered a role as a Senior Content Strategist with Pickle Jar Communications. A year later I’m part of the team behind ContentEd 2019.

I knew my best case scenario when I bought my ticket for ContentEd. I held my plan loosely. And somehow my plan worked.

But even if I hadn’t ended up in the job I was hoping for, I came away from the conference with new ideas, and a community that helps me grow as a content strategist.

So think about the conference you’re attending: What do you want to come away with? What’s on your wish list?

Now it’s time to work on mine for ContentEd 2019.

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