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I must admit that I’ve always been skeptical of conferences. Taking days out of the office (for a reason other than vacation) is expensive. If you’re going to spend money and sacrifice a valuable chunk of time that could be spent taking action, then it had better be worthwhile.

Our team at Behance debates the merits of conferences quite a bit. Some of us attend TED, SXSW, and the occasional tech conference. And, of course, all of us attend our own annual conference, The 99U.

When we developed the first 99U Conference in 2009, we sought to create an experience with the opposite intention of most other conferences. Rather than seek to inspire more ideas, The 99U was created to serve as an impetus for action. The fact that the conference now sells out many months in advance suggests that we struck a chord. But how do we as individuals measure the value of a conference? Is it the number of business cards collected? Old relationships rekindled? New ideas gained?

With the next 99U Conference right around the corner, I thought it would be useful to discuss how to get the most out of your conference experience – with us or at any other event. Here are a few insights:

1. Separate the wisdom from the action

I just went through my notes from the past two years of TED conferences, and I realised that I had never even re-read my notations from the 2009 event. Little observations and quotes that I particularly enjoyed were still scribbled amidst many pages of notes.

However, the action steps that I had come up with during the conference had fortunately been captured separately and addressed after the conference. During the conference, I had recorded these action steps with a star next to each – making it easier to decipher them from the other notations. There were people I planned to follow up with and a few ideas for improving one of our products.

The first thing I do after every conference is review the notes and transfer every starred item into my task management tool. Some people I know use a different color for the actionable stuff. Whatever your system, recognise that conferences are liable to overwhelm you with notations. You must enter and leave with a bias towards action to capture the gems for post-conference execution.

2. Distil every talk down to one key takeaway

Every presenter at a conference has his or her own style. Some people tell a story, sometimes there is a video or set of images, and sometimes there is a full slide presentation. Given our short memories and the great amount of stimuli, it is important to distil each presentation down to a central point.

After each presentation, ask yourself what struck you, what did you learn? Perhaps there was a specific tip that you could adapt in your own work – or some piece of counterintuitive advice that really resonated. If you write anything down during a conference, make it the one key take away from each presentation that is worth additional consideration upon your return to real life.

3. Defy structure to mine the circumstantial

How should you spend your time at a conference? Should you cut off a great conversation with a fellow attendee to make the next session? Should you take a breakfast meeting with a potential partner in lieu of attending the opening remarks? Don’t assume that you should follow the herd and do what you’re told.

The greatest benefits of a conference are circumstantial, often found in the seams of the experience. That chance conversation in the coffee line could make all the difference. A great conference is especially fertile ground for collaboration. As such, don’t feel pressured by the structure. Of course, as a conference organiser, our hope is that you enjoy the full agenda. However, you must ultimately make sure the conference serves your needs as best as it can.

4. Plan private gatherings with like-minded folks

Conferences are more than just the programming; they are an assembly of like-minded folks with great intention. How often do you get uninterrupted time to discuss matters of interest with industry peers from around the world? Many frequent conference goers claim that their greatest conference experiences happened during the ‘downtime.’

Don’t leave these benefits up to chance. Reach out to your contacts beforehand and propose grabbing an early breakfast together, lunch, or drinks during the conference. Encourage each person to invite one to two people that they deeply respect, thus broadening the potential of the meeting.

5. Process business cards for follow-up in real-time

Most conference conversations end with a business card exchange. And then, post-conference, you’re left with tons of cards and little time to sort through them. One tip I’ve heard is to collect business cards into two groups – the first for those that you absolutely plan to follow up with for a specific need, and the second for those that you just want to put in your address book but don’t have any next step (and if any other cards fall into the third camp of ‘who is this person?’ – discard).

For business cards that fall into the first group, write your intended action on the card. For example, ‘invite to do guest post’ or ‘introduce to Alex for demo.’ If you have a digital way to store contacts at conferences, use tags within the entry to distinguish those that are actionable from the others.

I don’t believe that a conference should simply be a creative indulgence. Many of us have found our passions and are searching to make an impact in what matters most to us. A simple dose of stimulation isn’t worth the price of admission. In your search for better focus and performance, attend your next conference with high expectations and make the effort to reach them.