Use the RISE methodology to get the most out of conferences — even when they’re held online

This is the first in a series of three articles sharing lessons and best practices from the Lenfest Next Generation Fund for how journalists can maximize professional development opportunities, build their professional brands, and effectively network. 

Conferences, even when they’re held virtually, can be intimidating. 

It takes practice and experience to know how to network, learn new skills from sessions, or present your own expertise on panels or in talks. 

It was out of this belief that the Lenfest Next Generation Fund was born. The program provides stipends and training for journalists of color in the Philadelphia media ecosystem to attend professional development conferences. We believe in the power of these gatherings to help participants achieve their career goals. 

Though we’ll all be attending conferences from home this year, they still present opportunities for attendees to achieve their goals and advance their careers. To help our award recipients make the most of their conference experiences, we recently held a training on how to maximize their opportunities — even if they happen to be held online.  

The training was led by Crawford Leadership Strategies CEO Joyel Crawford, who shared strategies for how attendees — especially people of color — can stand out in conference settings. You can watch a recording of the session here

“[People of color] have learned to stay in a box and [attending a conference] is an opportunity for us to get outside of this cubicle and learn new things,” Crawford said. “It can be a chance for you to build your professional brand thus increasing your visibility.”

Crawford acknowledged that it can be a challenge for conference attendees to break out of their shells, and she shared a set of strategies to help professionals achieve their goals and best prepare for conferences. 

She calls it the RISE methodology, which stands for: 

  • Reflect
  • Identify
  • Strategize
  • Execute

Here’s how how you can use this method to prepare for your conference: 

Reflect

Before starting any process you have to take time to reflect on your goals and your intentions. Conferences are no different. As you think about whether it’s worth the time and investment to attend a conference, ask yourself the following questions: 

  • Why do I want to attend this conference? 
  • What do I hope to gain? 
  • How will I know if I gained it? 
  • Why is this the best avenue for me to achieve my goals? 

These goals should be aspirational but not vague. Going to a conference just to network is not enough. Below are some examples of intentions Crawford set for herself in advance of  attending at the Women in Power Summit, a professional leadership conference for executive women of color:

  • To meet, speak to and get a direct quote from the CEO of Black Enterprise Magazine. 
  • To get as much information and education as possible about building, cultivating and growing her business. 
  • To network with all the organizations that were at the event, and to introduce herself to as many people as possible who were in charge of the conference.

Identify

Once you have a defined goal and intention for attending the conference the next step is to think about networking opportunities and plan which sessions you’d like to attend: 

  • As you’re researching and deciding how to spend your time, make sure you’re discerning and choose to do things that ultimately lead to you fulfilling your goal. You should do research ahead of time to identify attendees and speakers you want to be sure to catch. 
  • Identify ways to stay connected both ahead of and during the conference. Many conferences have apps or online directories that you should take advantage of to connect with speakers or attendees. 
  • No matter if you’re attending virtually or in person, you should create space in a way that lets you absorb as much information as possible without any distractions. While attending a virtual conference, make sure the physical space you are in allows you to fully concentrate.
  • As you prioritize sessions and breakouts to attend, you should also identify back-ups or second choices you can also pop into if your initial choices don’t pan out or aren’t the right fit. You have limited time at a conference, so you should not feel bad if you decide to leave a session early because it’s not right for you. 

Strategize

Strategizing a SMART action plan will help you to get the most out of the conference. SMART is an acronym that stands for specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and timely. The framework is often used as a tool to set goals. Here’s how to think about using the SMART approach: 

  • Specific: Your goal should be focused and targeted on a clear action. Don’t try to boil the ocean. 
  • Measurable: What metrics will you use to assess your progress toward your goal?
  • Achievable: You should always make your goals aspirational, but you should make sure that it is attainable with your current resources.
  • Relevant: Does the specific goal fit into your larger plans? We all have limited resources, so you should emphasize goals that align with your strategy. 
  • Timely: Give yourself deadlines and meet them. 

By setting SMART goals you can hold yourself accountable and set yourself up to successfully execute your plan at the conference. 

Execute 

This is where all your planning pays off. You have to take the preparation and actually put it into action. Here are some tips: 

  • Make the schedule work for you. If you need to process or marinate after the session — do it! It’s a lot to be on a video call for hours and hours. If you need to come back a little after the scheduled break — do it! Self care is key when you’re going to a virtual conference. Most likely, sessions will be recorded and you can access them later. 
  • Find an accountability buddy to help you stay close to your goals and check if you’re getting off track. They can give you feedback or even let you know if you need to straighten your tie or fix your make-up. You should do the same for them! 
  • Create an introduction and a keep-in-touch template that you can have ready when the meeting starts and just paste them in the chat box on the video call or email them afterward to participants. 

Participating in virtual conferences can be as equally rewarding as attending their in-person counterparts. Adapting to this new normal is a process that takes time and practice but that should not deter you from reaching your goals and making the most out of your professional development journeys. And by utilizing the RISE methodology, you’ll be able to capitalize on these opportunities. 

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