Getting the Most Out of Professional Conferences

By Rose O. Sherman, EdD, RN, FAAN


Most nurse leaders attend at least one professional conference each year.  There are many different reasons to go to conferences.  For some of us, it is rejuvenating to get away from our hectic work schedules for a few days, and perhaps find out that the grass really isn’t greener anywhere else. For others, conferences offer a great opportunity for networking with leaders from other parts of the country.  In some situations, it can provide a great opportunity for bonding when leadership teams attend conferences together.  But the truth is that few of us give little advanced thought to how we will spend our time and energy while attending.  We may take our first close look at the conference agenda on the plane while traveling there.   Yet today, conference attendance is very expensive.  A national conference often costs $2500 or more.  With some advanced intentional planning, we can gain more out of the professional conferences that we attend.  In fact, conferences can change the trajectory of one’s work.   Here are some great ideas adapted from Michael Hyatt, author of the Blog/Podcast Intentional Leadership:

Conference1.  Attend with the plan of being fully engaged

When you attend conferences today, you will observe that a large number of participants are either answering email or surfing the internet instead of being fully engaged with what is being said.  If you pay the money to attend, commit yourself to being fully present.  Be willing to stretch your thinking even when the topic is uncomfortable.  When you are fully listening and leaning in – you create the possibilities for transformation.

2. Keep an open mind

Hyatt wisely advises that you keep your inner critic at arms length when you are listening to a speaker.  Don’t find fault – simply listen.  I often hear nurse leaders complain that a speaker comes from a setting much different than their own, and the experiences are not transferable.  But don’t be so quick to write off an idea as something that could not work in your environment.  Look for the gems in what is being said, and you will inevitably find some.

3. Have a challenging issue/question to discuss with other attendees

One of the most valuable outcomes of attending conferences involves networking with other participants.  But take this beyond the usual introduction.  Go to every conference with at least one challenge or problem you hope to solve or information you need to gain.  Have a question that you routinely ask of everyone you meet.  For me, I am always interested in knowing what is keeping nurse leaders awake at night at this point in time.  It is both a great icebreaker and I learn a great deal over the course of a 2-3 day conference by talking to 50-60 leaders.

4. Take good notes 

Many conferences today have gone completely paperless.  There may be a conference application that you can download on your phone for your use during the conference.  But often,  you are reliant on your own good notes so be sure to write down the key points in every presentation.

5. Get enough rest so you don’t skip sessions

I have colleagues who attend conferences and skip more than half the sessions.  Not only is this a waste of organizational resources, but it is also a lost opportunity.  Get enough rest especially if the conference is in a different timezone so you don’t miss sessions.

6. Visit poster sessions and exhibitors

Some of the best content in conferences can be found in poster presentations.  I am often amazed at the quality of research and projects that I find on these posters .  Much of this work is never published in any forum because the creators are  practicing clinicians who never take the time to write an article.  It is also important to visit the exhibit hall.  There are often interesting new products and vendors that you may not be aware of.

7. Attend at least one session covering content you know nothing about

Choose at least one session at every conference that is “out of the box” for you.  Innovation often happens by making connections through the use of very different ideas or practices.

8. Identify at least 3 takeaways from each conference

As you travel back from each conference, identify at least three new ideas that are takeaways for you.  Consider how you could use them in your practice and share them with your colleagues when you get back.

Michael Hyatt reminds us that conferences can be a great way to set the refresh button on our work and give us new insights.  This will only happen if we are intentional when we attend them, keep an open mind and ask good questions.

Dr. Rose O. Sherman, RN, NEA-BC, FAAN is a Professor of Nursing and Director of the Nursing Leadership Institute in the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing at Florida Atlantic University, Boca Raton, Florida. To read more of her articles, visit her blog, Emerging RN Leader.