Long after you have returned from a conference, have you ever stumbled upon your notes, only to realize you never did anything with what you learned?
Worse, have you even had to admit that now, because so many months have slipped by and you’ve forgotten so much, you can’t remember why it was that you were so revved up at the time?
We’ve all been there, so, with another year’s meeting season coming fast, it’s time to look for some tried-and-true conference strategies, because it doesn’t always have to end in futility. There really are ways to make conferences and meetings a key source of inspiration and innovation for your farm.
Besides, taking time away from your farm and paying conference and travel expenses is a substantial investment, so it makes sense to get full value by making the most of it.
To ensure you get the best return, Country Guide has asked several authorities to weigh in on the subject.
Let’s start with Raubi Perilli, a marketer in Tampa, Florida, (and granddaughter of a John Deere dealer) who says that even before you register for an event, you need to decide what your goals are. Ask yourself what you hope to gain by attending. What problem are you trying to solve? Who are the people you want to connect with?
Being keenly aware of your learning and networking goals will help you choose meetings that match your needs, Perilli says.
Then before you pack your bags, pore over the agenda and make note of which sessions you want to attend, noting the time and room assignments, says Perilli.
Too often, an event can pop up on your calendar and you rush to it without the proper preparation, she says. You’ll get more out of it more quickly and efficiently if you go with a plan.
Pat Katz, a human resources consultant in Saskatoon, emphasizes the importance of choosing events that will stretch you beyond your comfort zone.
“If you are entirely comfortable at a training event, and can predict what the presenter will say next, you’re in the wrong session,” she says. “Scan seminar advertisements for clues to the level of difficulty. Key words like ‘simple, basic, introductory, beginning’ signal that the material is geared to novices,” she says.
The format of the event is another important consideration, continues Katz. She points out that if you’ve already attended several training sessions on a topic and you’re still struggling, then you may benefit from a different format. “If you have precise needs or specific questions about a topic, a one-on-one consultation may be more useful.”
Also, to get the most out of your investment when attending an event, put yourself in a position to focus on the day’s content, says Katz. Unplug from the farm as much as possible so you can get the full benefit of the event, which is what you’re paying for. Sit up front to get the best view of the proceedings. And if you’re attending with people you know, split up so you can make contact with new people and listen to fresh ideas. Then use session breaks to make notes on how you can apply the information to your own operation.
Go prepared with paper and pen, laptop computer or tablet to take notes, says Katz. Surprisingly, many people arrive without these basic essentials, she says, adding that you should take notes even if a handout is provided. “Your own notes will help you recall important points that apply to you.”
There has been much debate over whether it’s better to take notes on paper versus electronically. There are many arguments in favour of using old-fashioned hand-written notes. Research at Harvard completed in 2014 showed that people had better recall of the information presented when they wrote their own notes compared to using a laptop computer. The researchers concluded that writing the notes by hand helps you to encode the information.
There was also more of a tendency when using a computer to write down everything the speaker said rather than just the salient points, which made the notes less useful.
There were other drawbacks for using a laptop too. There are more distractions available on a laptop so you may be tempted to start replying to an email when you should be listening. And if the presentation contains a lot of symbols or diagrams, it is usually easier and faster to make handwritten notes, although some tablets do have this capability.
On the other hand, there are situations where using a laptop is advantageous. If your handwriting is poor, you may be better off using a laptop for note-taking, especially if you plan to share your notes with others. And with a laptop, you have captured the information in an electronic format so you will be able to access it more easily in future without risking misplacing your notes.
Personal preference and typing speed will also play a role. If you use the “hunt and peck” method on your keyboard, handwritten notes are likely the better option.
Daphne Gray-Grant, a writer and instructor in Vancouver, takes notes with her laptop computer after a stroke left her with poor handwriting. Besides readability, this allows her to store her conference notes digitally using the Evernote software. This web-based system has versions for both PCs and Macs and can be installed on mobile devices so you have remote access.
Gray-Grant says Evernote allows you to save anything — a web page, a document you’ve scanned, a Word document. The information can be saved in digital notebooks and with multiple tags so you can find it easily. Gray-Grant says she uses between three and six tags per item.
The basic service is free and if you exceed the monthly upload limit of 60 MB it costs about $90 per year, she says.
Whatever method you choose, be sure to make note of items for further action as you go. This can be done on a separate page or as part of your general notes. One way to make sure these items stand out is to make a column on the right-hand side of your page or document where you note items for follow up.
Then, when you get home, the key is not to let the knowledge you gained slip away, our experts agree.
Review your notes, Perilli says, and answer these key questions:
- What was the biggest takeaway?
- What did you learn that you need to implement right away?
- What did you learn that you need to implement over time?
- What did you discover that you want to learn more about?
Summarize the key points for others on the farm, adds Katz, who points out, “sharing what you learned with others helps crystallize the information.”
To ensure that what you’ve learned doesn’t get sidetracked, make an action plan with “check-in” dates on your calendar to make yourself accountable. “Put actionable items on your calendar, don’t just leave them in your notebook,” agrees Pirelli.
Pirelli also advises creating an action plan for items you want to explore further and dig deeper into.
“Force it onto your schedule,” adds Gray-Grant. “You need a mechanism to integrate the learning into your regular working life.”
As Katz says, “training both costs and makes money.” By following these simple strategies, your investment in training and professional development will more than pay for itself.
Also plan for the fact that, while the information you’ll glean at conferences and workshops can be valuable, so are the contacts you make.
Reach out to them on social media using the event hashtag beforehand, and then connect with them on Facebook or LinkedIn afterwards. Write notes on the back of business cards so you’ll remember the significance of the connection.
Even in this digital age, Perilli says business cards are a useful networking tool for following up after the event.
Use the breaks and evenings to meet other conference participants, adds Perilli. Need an ice breaker to start a conversation? It’s simple, she says. Just ask: Who was your favourite speaker? Or, what’s been your favourite takeaway message?