Education Conferences: How to Choose Which Sessions to Attend
How do you decide which sessions to attend when you go to a conference? Especially one that has amazing session at every time slot. It’s not easy and until last week, I had no plan. It’s not as if this is tragedy, but I can tell you that I left the most recent conference I attended, National Principal’s Conference 2019, feeling as if I had gotten everything I wanted out of the 3-day experience. To be honest, I have attended many wonderful conferences in the past, and I had never felt the way I feel today and it’s not any fault of the conferences. It was because I did not have a plan.
I do now.
Pick Great Presenters
I know some of you may be thinking, “Jon, I enjoy attending conferences, but I don’t have any desire to ever present at one of these things.” Okay, I hear you. But, don’t forget that you present all the time. Whether you are a teacher presenting to your students, a principal presenting to your staff or a supervisor presenting to your department; you are a presenter.
Therefore, it only makes sense to choose a session or two in which you know you will be observing a master presenter. Maybe you are interested in what they are talking about. Maybe you’re not.
But for the hour or hour and half that you are in their session, you are going to learn everything you possibly can about what it means to be a great presenter. Your focus is not on the content. Of course, what they are saying is probably quite important. But remember, that’s not why you’re there.
Notice how they interact with folks as they enter the room. Do they greet them before they enter or do they wait until they sit down? Do they thank people for attending or do they just say hi? Maybe they circulate the room and try to connect for just a few seconds with as many people as possible. Whatever it is they do, take notice.
Once their presentation begins watch how they move about the room or the stage. There are various styles and some work better than others. Some presenters use the whole room while others remain in a relatively fixed location. One isn’t necessarily better than the other. They’re just different. As you are watching, think about what would work for you.
Additionally, pay careful attention to how the speaker invokes humor into their presentation. Do they begin their presentation with something funny and thereby relax the crowd? Or do they insert humorous videos and slides into their presentation? Maybe they use both. One thing for sure though. Great presenters are always able to get the audience to laugh. The best presenters take it one step further and display vulnerability by laughing at themselves.
Finally, how do they close their presentation? Do they simply sum up the main points they covered? Or do they end with an emotional and relevant story that ties everything together? I have found that the latter is most often the case. Watching a master presenter is a special experience and one that you take much from regardless of your role or your future conference plans.
Choose Sessions Based on the Topic and Content
You took time out of your summer, your week or maybe even your weekend because you want to further your professional development. And you or your district paid money for you to attend this conference so that you can learn something you probably couldn’t from your local pd. Let’s be real. There is often no comparison. Sad but true.
First, it is important to remember that you only need to come away with one great idea or technique for the session to be worth your time. You are not going to agree with everything the presenter says and maybe some of what they share just isn’t relevant to you and your situation. That’s okay. Remember. Your goal is to leave with one takeaway.
Next, try to interact with the presenter before, after or even during the session. Oftentimes, they have more to share than they can possibly fit into a one-hour session. Presenters are often passionate about the topic on which they are speaking. They really geek out talking about Project Based Learning, Standards Based Grading or whatever. If there is more that you want to know, or you want to them to go more in depth; ask them. If they can’t during their session, they will almost always find the time to meet with you later.
Finally, ask questions! Yes, the presenter has to stick to a tight time schedule. They have probably practiced their presentation numerous times and may have it rehearsed down to the minute. Ask questions anyway. It not only helps you further your knowledge, it demonstrates to the presenter that you are listening and that you care about what it is they are saying.
Support Your Friends and Colleagues
Getting up and speaking in front of others is not easy. It doesn’t matter if it is front of seven people or seven hundred. There are always going to be a few butterflies. That’s just human nature.
So, when you are deciding what sessions to attend, pick one or two that are being led by people you know and people that support you. It doesn’t matter if you have heard their presentation before and it doesn’t matter if you are not interested in the topic. You are there for them.
When your colleague sees you walk in the room, they exhale just a little, knowing that you are going to be there with them. If they get nervous or are a bit unsure of themselves, all they have to do is look over at you and know that you have their back. I speak from experience when I say that it means the world to the presenter to know that their friends came to support them.
Here’s the cool thing. Oftentimes, you will find that a session could fit into all three categories. As was the case with several of the sessions I attended last week. When that happens, consider yourself lucky.
Your Next Conference
It’s easy to become overwhelmed when trying to decide what sessions to attend at large conferences. There are often too many to choose from and it is hard to know where to start. I’ve been there and I have attended conferences in which I did not get the most out of the experience. Not because the conferences were poorly organized and not because there weren’t good sessions to choose from. Quite the contrary. I simply did not have a plan.
But as I mentioned previously, I had a plan this week and my experience was awesome.
Try my three part plan the next time you find yourself not knowing how to fill your schedule. I bet you have a great experience.
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