From the April 2014 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

The Right Way to Attend a Conference: Bill Good

What if there is a decent chance you could come away with one or two major life and/or business changing ideas?

What I learned from Tony Hsieh and the muse Serendipity. What I learned from Tony Hsieh and the muse Serendipity.

Author's note: This article is really about creative thinking. At www.billgood.com/creative, I have put some links to articles and books you may find of interest.

How to attend a conference: Seems like a ridiculous topic, doesn't it?

You have a conference to attend. You go. You come back, hopefully with a to-do list.

Question: Why do you need to read this article on how to attend one?

Answer: What if there is a decent chance you could come away with one or two major life and/or business changing ideas? What if all of the ingredients that foster creative thinking are at that conference? Because you are forced to attend, you go with a sour attitude. Sad.

Barron's Teams Summit

Early this year, I did something I had not done in too long—I attended a conference as a participant, not as a presenter. Don't get me wrong, I love attending conferences. I love the energy, the connections, and I’ve known for a long time conferences often produce major, if not life-changing, ideas. I really didn't understand how.

Wearing a speaker's hat, my focus is entirely different than when attending as a participant. I go to enough of the events to get a feeling for the audience, for the room, the acoustics, lighting and all those other things speakers need to take into account. I will generally sit in the back and then slip out.

However, an opportunity to attend as a participant popped up. I was introduced to Sterling Shea, managing director at Barron's, who runs the “Barron's 1000.” Sterling invited me to attend the Barron's Top Advisory Teams Summit as his guest. I jiggled my schedule and showed up in Orlando when it was sub-zero everywhere else. What's not to like?

Plus, the roster was a blend of inspirational and “how to” speakers. But a source of great ideas?

Serendipity

When I attend a conference, I am, like you, looking for takeaways. These are the “I can improve this, do a better job with that.” These are important. But most of all, I am hoping for a visit from “Serendipity.” Over the years, it has happened enough for me to hope for a visit.

The dictionaries tell us that serendipity is “fortuitous happenstance” or “pleasant surprise.” On a grand scale, serendipity frequently occurs in science, as in Fleming's accidental discovery of penicillin. It was all over the place during the “Enlightenment,” which seems largely to have happened in English coffee houses. It happens in the Theater District in New York, in Hollywood, in Silicon Valley.

Today, with universal connectivity, is there really a reason why there has to be a section of New York devoted to fashion? To diamonds? Can't we just disperse the cities and let everyone live on little self-sustaining farms in the countryside?

What about conferences? Can't we just attend electronically? They are expensive. There is time away from families. Let's replace all that with webinars, OK?

Hold everything. You see there is a very good reason not to live in the countryside. It's the same reason to not convert conferences to webinars.

It's Serendipity.

From experience, I can tell you that Serendipity arrives. She (he?) does not come when called. However, there are a set of factors that welcome it, and you will find these, interestingly, at a conference:

  1. Fire hose of data. The muse has an insatiable appetite for information. Apparently, all of these data points bang around in that marvelous supercomputer we all carry with us. An old friend once defined an “idea” as “connecting two or more things you know in a new way.” The more data swirling around, the more connections. The process seems to accelerate exponentially the more new data you absorb.

  2. Connections (or collisions in the words of Tony Hsieh). Tony was the keynote speaker. Unassuming style. Ladled huge doses of wisdom. You may recall he sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion and remains its CEO. He made the point: Great ideas do not come from the seclusion of the countryside. They come from the collisions of a city—or a conference where thousands of ideas float around.

Tony's thoughts on “collisions” forced me to modify my formula for attending a conference, and for inviting a visit from Serendipity.

New Formula

I attend as many presentations as possible. I sit up front. I take copious notes. (Those of you who sit in the back so you can text and surf: You are annoying the muse. What a waste!)

I take copious notes. I need to absorb as many data points as possible. Sometimes Serendipity will visit when I review notes. But I have to be able to read the notes. As my team knows, handwriting is an issue for me. I need the notes to be complete.

In taking notes, I am certainly not trying to do stenographic recording. Rather, I am at least trying to get an outline of all the topics covered. Sometimes I might have only a word or two for each topic.

My notes usually mean something for about 24 hours. Then they descend into gibberish. As quickly as possible, I need to get off in a corner and dictate a summary of each of the speakers. My dictation tool of choice, of course, is Copytalk. As I dictate, I don't edit; I just dictate whatever comes to mind by looking at my notes. After the conference, I review the transcripts, add additional recollections and put these in a “Conference” folder on my laptop.

Here are some of my edited notes from Tony Hsieh's presentation:

He has put up $350 million to reinvent the area around Zappos new headquarters, the old Las Vegas City Hall. His operating basis is that chance encounters (which he calls “collisions”) spark innovation. To build a city in which these collisions occur, Mr. Hsieh (pronounced shay) is providing seed capital to small businesses who will locate in the several blocks around Zappos. He is pulling a population of young entrepreneurs in a city of his own creation where these collisions can occur. He is actually conceiving the city as a startup! In the process, he has rethought the old tired failing concept of “urban renewal.”

Somewhere in Tony's talk, Serendipity whispered to me. “It's the collisions. The more the better.”

I added a piece to my conference routine.

For years, I have made it a practice to visit as many vendors at a conference as possible. I didn't understand why these encounters were important, I knew they were. But Serendipity told me, “Bring me more collisions. Then I can give you better ideas.” While Tony quickly made his exit, I made it a point to introduce myself to all the remaining speakers as well as many vendors and conference attendees.

Collide more.

Conference Cheat Sheet

Try it. Cut out the six steps below. Put them in your conference notebook. See if Serendipity doesn't visit you.

  1. Attend all the meetings. Sit in front. Take copious notes. Turn off your phone.

  2. Improve on the notes by dictating them as soon as possible.

  3. Make it a point to sit with people you don't know.

  4. Introduce yourself to all the vendors.

  5. Introduce yourself to, and if possible chat with, all the speakers.

  6. Be alert. Serendipity visits conferences. She will visit you if you play her game.

Did the muse visit me at the Barron's conference? You bet.

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