AI-driven Japanese robot raps a song it just made up for you at SXSW 2018. Photo by Becky McCray

Attending conferences, trade shows and industry events gives you early access to new technologies and ideas. Here, a AI powered robot makes up a custom rap song for each person it talks to, based on what they talk about. Photo by Becky McCray.


Going to conferences and events can have huge benefits for small town business people. When we’re working in our business, we feel isolated because there are so few businesses like ours. It can feel like there is no one to talk to, no one who understands what we go through.

That’s why industry conferences, trade shows and events can be a huge boost for small town businesses. You get face-to-face interaction, opportunities to learn, and chance encounters that can change everything. But here’s the limitation:

What you get out of any event depends on what you put into it.

Because you’re taking time away from your business and small town, I want to be sure it’s worth it for you. Here are some of my best tips for getting your money’s worth before, during and after an event.

Before the Event

You need to know the five W’s of your conference before you ever go.

If you’re trying to decide if an event is worth your time and money, try answering these questions now. It may clear up the value you’ll be able to get out of it.


  • Who do you want to meet? Think customers, partners, competitors, mentors, and vendors
  • Who could you cooperate with?
  • Who could send you customers? Who could you send customers for an affiliate offer?
  • Who have you talked to several times, and you just need to push it over the edge and get something going with them?


  • What do you want to talk to these people about?
  • What project are you working on that is too big for you alone?
  • What are you wanting to learn? What sessions should you make time for?

When and Where

  • Before the event, reach out to people you really want to talk to and set up a time to meet at the event
  • Are there sessions you don’t want to miss? Invite a friend to meet you at a particular session that relates to a project you’re working on


  • Review the schedule with your goals in mind
  • Make an index card of your goals for the event and be sure to take it with you

A couple of other points

  • Order some business cards, if you’re in a business card kind of industry. I still use a few (about a dozen) at most big conferences.
  • Post something relevant on your blog or social profiles. People who are researching other attendees and people you meet will want to check you out online, and you’d like them to see something of value when they do.

During the event:

Make the most of being at a conference

Be somebody

Be your friendliest self. Act like you’re in a small town. Say hello to everyone. Talk to your neighbors, whether in line or at a table or where ever you find yourself. Pretend you are hosting a big party, and all of these people have chosen to attend with you. When you’re sitting in the partially empty room before a session, take the initiative to break the ice. It’s your party, after all!

Know how you plan to introduce yourself, what you want people at this event to know about you. Give people hooks, so they know how you might be useful to them. Don’t worry as much about handing out your card as you do about getting their card. That way you can be sure you follow up, not rely on them to remember. I got those ideas from Chris Brogan.

If you see a friend, make time right then to stop and talk. At really large events, you can’t count on seeing people more than once. I learned that one from Jeff Pulver.

Create something

Make notes. Even if you know this stuff, writing it down (or typing it in) helps you remember it and come up with new ideas.

Write short articles and bullet point summaries while you’re there. You don’t have to publish them immediately, but you can start article drafts at least.

Take photos of people, of signs, of everything. Want a trick to remember people’s names? Take their picture, then take a picture of their name tag. I’ve been doing it for years, and it really helps later.

Shoot video, even if you only use your phone. It makes you talk to people, and you can share their thoughts online. Not sure what to shoot? Have one question you ask everyone. Keith Burtis did this at SXSW years ago, asking several people to define social media.

Share with non-attendees. Pick one site to share your photos throughout the event. Also consider live blogging (posting raw notes as quickly as possible to your blog, social profile or website during events) or live tweeting (tweeting snippets from presentations using the event hashtag). These are good ways to position yourself as a leader in the larger online community around the event.

Sometimes I live tweet from local events, even if I’m the only one there on Twitter. My friends usually see my posts and ask relevant questions or bring up related ideas. It helps me reflect on the content from the event.

Not everyone likes to do this or agrees that it is good form. Use your own judgment, and consider the event and the audience.

Pick only one or two ways of creating something, as you can’t do it all. Adapt to your own style. I’m terrible about writing while at events, but I do usually make time to upload some photos each day.

Go to basic sessions to eavesdrop

You may know a lot about the topics that will be covered at the event. That doesn’t mean you should skip those sessions. Long time SBS-commenter Carl Natale made this point:

Pay attention to the questions that people ask – especially in the sessions.

These questions are insights into what your market needs. This is why I often attend sessions that cover subjects I’m very familiar with. I want to know what other people don’t know.
That information helps me choose what to write about and what services to offer. It’s market research.

Go to “out there” and “off topic” sessions

Rex Hammock taught me this for SXSW. Following his advice, I learned about augmented reality, predictive questions, and lots of other weird and wonderful things long before most anyone was talking about them. I still look for crazy technical subjects that I would never normally consider.

For non-technology conferences, take in sessions designed for people outside your specialty. Sit in on a session for the finance people or the sales group. Look for topics that can get you outside your usual thinking pattern.

Get away from the crowd

Look for chances to be part of a small group and meaningful conversation, even if you don’t know everyone there. Schedule a dinner with just a few friends. Magic happens in the small groups.

Make follow up notes right now

The best way I’ve found is to keep a running list of follow-up items.

If you’re taking notes on paper, leave a blank page at the beginning. Put a star at the top. As you’re taking notes during a session or conversation, put a star next to the ones you want to follow up on. Then copy them to the star page.

If you’re taking notes on your phone, tablet or laptop, copy and paste follow up items to the top of the document.

After the Conference

I know you’re tired! Between the sessions, the travel and the long hours, events leave us all tired out. And there’s a mess of things waiting on you at home. If you immediately dive back into the regular grind, you’re missing out on any lasting benefits.

You went to the event so you’d have new ideas, new contacts, new things to create. That was the point, right? So don’t short yourself on follow-up time.

Schedule follow up using the 2-to-1 rule

Schedule two days for implementation for every one day of the conference. Break it down into smaller chunks, but make sure you give yourself the time you’ll need.

I heard this rule from Marc Pitman, who said he heard it from Elizabeth McCormick.

Here’s what to put in your follow-up time.

Follow up on action items

This is the most important thing you can do. Go back to your notes for those follow up items. Pick out just five that are the most promising. Then cut it down to one. What is the one thing you most want to do now? Take an action immediately to start on it now.

You can do this during any dead time during your travel home, like that long flight or airport waiting time. Or you can do it during your very first follow up session.

Even if this is the only follow up you get done, you’ll be ahead of most of the other people who attended. Good for you!

Follow up with people

Some of your top 5 action items will actually be people you want to follow up with. Before you reach out to them, remember as much as you can about when you talked with them. You want to remind them of who you are. Make it easy for them to remember that they were excited about talking to you, too.

Send them an email that starts by reminding them of the details of where you met and what you discussed, and ends with a next step to move forward.

Report out

Once you’ve started by taking action and by following up with people, the next most useful thing to do is share what you’ve learned. It will help you to reinforce your own learning, and it will give you some public recognition. You can share online or in person with others.

Share great ideas with others locally. If the event was specific to your industry, you’ll still come across ideas that others in your community could use. Make time to share those ideas with them. Could you put together a few takeaways and serve as a guest speaker for a local group like the Chamber or Rotary?

Report on the event online. Post it to your blog, Facebook, or  anywhere else you usually share your creative thinking.

Get some local press. In a small town, you can probably write up your own report on the event and submit it along with photos to the local paper. Maybe you can do a guest spot on the local radio. This makes a great tie-in with being a local guest speaker, as well.

Post your photos from the event to your favorite social photo place. Tag them with key words about the event and all the people pictured.

Report to your sponsors or potential sponsors for next time. If someone or a business helped cover your costs for the event, you want to be sure you give them great value for their money.

Now, the champion at this has to be Adele McAlear. Here’s what she did:

I videotaped sessions that my sponsors were interested in, then transcribed the video so that the content could be sliced, diced and searchable. I also went out of my way to meet people that were pertinent to my sponsors’ businesses and provided a report of those conversations and their contact information. I did an executive summary of the experience, relevant to my sponsors’ needs, and had the whole thing (1 1/2 inches thick) spiral bound. I burned the video to DVD and sent that along too.

I don’t know if you’ll do as well as Adele, but then again, you might not do as well at finding sponsors either. This is one place it pays to over-deliver, I think. In fact, why not send a thorough report to someone who was on the fence about sponsoring you? Consider it an investment in gaining future sponsorship.

Connect with others

Search for event posts and photos from other attendees. Comment and connect.

Ask for permission to use photos of you that you find. If you get a yes, save those photos to your computer or your favorite cloud and rename them to include the name of the photographer. “Me at TACVB by Doug Harmon” or something like that. The purpose is to give that photographer the credit if and when you use the pic. If you don’t get permission, then don’t use it.

How to afford that big conference or event

If you’re still trying to figure out where the money is going to come from to get you to the conference in the first place, here’s how to sponsor yourself to cover event costs.

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