This time of year, it’s common to be spending time figuring out what technical conferences you’re planning to attend next year. But how do you make the most of your time and money at these events? Here are some suggestions.

Before:

  1. Plan your schedule. Go through the conference agenda and figure out which sessions you want to attend, which vendors you should see in the exhibit hall, and so on. Remember to schedule time to check your email, eat, and get between places, particularly if events are held in multiple locations. While you’re at it, make a list of questions you’d like answered, problems you’d like help with, and make sure you have a 30-second “elevator speech” to explain to people what you do and why you’re there.
  2. Check your contacts. Whom do you know who might also be attending the conference? Make plans to meet them there. Which of the speakers would you like to meet? Start following them on social media (and start keeping tabs on the conference hashtag as well). Which friends, clients, and colleagues live in the area? Figure out where the closest Starbucks or Panera Bread is and plan coffee or lunch.
  3. Pack. Are your “convention clothes” cleaned, pressed, and in good repair? Do you have a pair of comfortable shoes? How’s your business card supply? Make sure you have an extra extension cord and whatever batteries, chargers, and medication you need.

During:

  1. Make new friends. Yes, the forced socialness of a conference can be overwhelming, but make a point of sitting with new people at meals, talking with people in the elevators, and going to the various events. After all, the whole point of going to a conference is to meet new people. And be sure to exchange business cards or contact information so you can keep in touch later.
  2. Take notes. Whether you prefer scribbling on a notepad, live-Tweeting, or filling up your Evernote, make sure you’re keeping track of things. And don’t just write down what the speaker is saying—also write down the ideas and thoughts you come up with, even if they have nothing to do with the presentation. While you’re at it, also write down on the business cards the pertinent information about the person you just met, whether it’s something you promised to send them or something you wanted to ask them. In particular, make a separate list of specific actionable items so they don’t get lost in the shuffle.
  3. Be present. Some people swear by leaving your laptop or tablet in your room, while others wouldn’t be caught dead without their technology. Either way, don’t sit in a session doing the same work you’d do at home. Send email to coworkers with ideas you’re picking up, or drop notes to the speakers who promised to send out copies of their slides.
  4. Take care of yourself. Especially if you’re in a different time zone, get enough rest. Don’t count on caffeine to keep you going all week, and drink plenty of water. Eat healthfully and drink in moderation, if at all. And try to get some exercise, preferably in the fresh air.

After:

  1. Follow up. Who said they’d help you out with a problem? Who wanted to see something you’ve done? Which new user groups did you find out about? Follow the people you met on LinkedIn or Twitter, poke people who promised to send you material, and remember to send material to the people who asked you for it.
  2. Summarize. Write up what you learned and what you want to try, not just for yourself, but for your coworkers and other people in your field who didn’t attend the conference. Make a presentation at your local user group or professional organization. Go through your action items and see which ones your coworkers want to implement. In particular, make a list of anything that you wish you’d done for this conference (“get walking shoes resoled”) and take care of it before your next one.

Done right, technical conferences can be invaluable for your company, your job, and your career. (And we hope we’ll see you all at the Laserfiche Empower Conference next month!)

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