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Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

Oral session at an AHA meeting (AHA picture)

This topic popped up as I was working on putting together my itinerary for the upcoming annual meeting of the American Heart Association (AHA). Conferences are especially stimulating for me, as they represent a great intersection of people and ideas. Some may say planning should not be a big deal after years of attending conferences; yet, I can still easily become overwhelmed by rich content gatherings that bring together more than 20,000 people. My zest becomes my biggest problem: it may seem that during any of the long days, I would profit from and enjoy being able to attend more than a half a dozen… simultaneous presentations! So here are some thoughts:

Knowledge/Content: putting together an action plan!

1. Browse topics and speakers ahead of time. I know, I have trouble making proper time for this beforehand, but it always ends up being the best strategy to make the most of my conferences. Postponing until close to departure never works, somehow fires that will need to be put out will always occur just as I am about to take off…

2. Define your strategy, i.e. main goal(s). Ask yourself “what is the most important thing I could bring back after this year’s conference?” Will I want to be able to say: a) “I learned the latest details about a specific project I am working on” b) “I had the opportunity to meet/follow the work of… (specific people/groups)” c) “I was able to check on a specific technology” or d) “I got a good sense of the ‘hot topics’/ future trends?” When in doubt, dig deeper into who/what will be available at this year’s conference, e.g. read abstracts, quickly Google subject/presenters. Learned from experience: frequently the title is more interesting than the content itself! Maybe including in your schedule some of each works best. If on the other hand, the main purpose is to present your own stuff, make sure you alert/invite the people who should hear it. And don’t forget to plan time to check on the room, equipment, or to talk to potentially interested people after the presentation.

3. Use all available scheduling tools to make your life easier (e.g., online planners, personal calendars, alerts, etc.) Prioritize the content, produce a plan/schedule, and find information fast and easily (even when your brain might be half numb).

4. Check on feasibility of reaching presentation locations – can you actually make it from one event to the next on your schedule? If not, have a plan B, could be even just take a quick break and regroup rather than frantically missing half of the next event.

5. Be flexible and nimble, not only in terms of running from one session to another, but if you find that an unexpected topic is capturing your imagination, go for it! You may catch up with the previously planned speaker or topic another time or way.

6. Avoid the “burn!” After a couple of busy conference days, this is to be expected, plan even more purposefully, including breaks. “Spice it up”: mix various formats, contents. Don’t give up easily on your daily exercise routine, unless you really get a lot of mileage walking from session to session. There is also a benefit from using different muscles, maybe use the chance of having a hotel pool to swim instead?

Attendees – interacting with people at meetings is as important as absorbing the content – make time for them! I found that while this is engrained into the business culture (see my previous post on the professional benefits of social interactions at conferences), this may not come naturally to many science or technology-oriented people.

1. Attend interactive sessions, e.g. posters, they usually allow more quality interactions than the plenary sessions. Match your content priority with the format (or… strategy with tactics!), i.e., poster sessions are best for digging into technical details with the presenters, oral/plenary sessions are better to get a bird’s eye view of trends or hear what others might say/ask about a topic .

2. Listen and ask lots of questions, but, please, please, not as a series of excruciatingly detailed questions after an oral presentation… Avoid being one of those people! You will not be making any friends as you will be wasting everybody else’s Q&A great opportunity by insisting on some detail you only are interested in, and you might publicly demonstrate being the last one still in the dark… Asking the presenter technical details after the session always works best.

3. Best opportunity to make contact with people whose work you have followed. One of my greatest thrills when I started going to international conferences was to put a face on a name I only knew from their scientific reports, likely equivalent to that felt by people meeting their Hollywood favorite stars. Schedule time with these people ahead of time (authors’ contact info is mandatory for published reports, or you can Google any academic), or just plan to be where they are likely to be during the meeting to do some “star-gazing.” Take the opportunity to introduce yourself, be very brief, unless invited to elaborate.

4. Re-connect and stay in touch: Use conferences as an opportunity to touch base with previous colleagues, collaborators, mentors, who now work in different locations. Most people feel safer spending the whole time huddling with their current buddies, but you can do that without having to travel. Schedule meetings that do not interfere too much with the “flow”, e.g. go see them by their poster, after their presentation, attend alumni events, or purposefully schedule coffee, lunch, drink, etc. You can use social networks (e.g., LinkedInTwitterMy Lab Your Lab) to signal you will be attending or send invites. Use these after the meeting to re-connect and stay in touch.

5. Network! Go beyond the “known,” make an effort to strike up a conversation with people you don’t know, even if they do not work in an area directly related you current interests. It is often the best opportunity to learn something truly new and come back with great ideas for novel projects. For instance, ask people what are they working on, what is the most exciting angle/topic to them? By doing this, I became aware of a lot of great concepts that I was then able to connect with my own areas of interest and I also identified new collaborators to help me apply them, similarly, a lot of people found me! An easy recipe for innovation. Don’t forget to exchange contact information. You can also “solidify” new connections by inviting people to become part of your professional network.

Did you have some good tips to share with us?

I probably forgot many tips, but a very important one I have to make sure I don’t forget before going back to refining my overloaded itinerary (and packing)… Wear comfortable shoes!

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