If you feel like you keep going to conferences and events but don’t have time to apply what you learned when you get back to the office, you’re not alone. Once you’re back and the emails pile up, the phone rings, and people walk into your office there’s not much you can do. All the good intentions you had of applying what you learned when you were out end up being nothing but notes in a drawer.
Making the Conference Count
If you really want to make the most out of your trade show, conference, or other learning event you attended, you have to be prepared to act when you get back to the office. And the best way is to use a systematic approach to attending conferences. I know, it sounds like work but unless you are prepared to approach it as a project, you won’t be able to really take adavantage of the learning experience after the event is over.
How to Take Notes for Learning
I suggest you take a piece of paper (or use MS Word, Evernote, our iPad, it doesn’t matter) and create a template to use at every single session you plan on attending. It doesn’t need to be a full 8.5 x 11 letter size paper, some small 3×5 index cards can do the trick. The goal is to make sure you take the same style of notes at all sessions. Here’s what your template needs to have:
CONFERENCE NAME: [name of the conference]
Session: [title of the session]
Date: [date of the session]
Presenter(s): [name of the presenter, and contact info]
Key Insights: [bullet points on things you’d like to learn more about, research online, or that were just interesting or insightful]
Action Items: [ what will you or your team do once you get back]
The most important part of note taking is the “action items” block. The easiest is to just put down bullet points of what you or your team will do once you get back. Could be as simple as “Review our home page meta tags to improve SEO” or a bit more complex like “Create a project to select a CMS system for our website”. The objective is to write short, very direct items that you will later translate into more details to your team.
As you take notes of each session, an interesting thing will happen. You will suddenly realize not all sessions are really good. If you walk out of a session with a blank page (i.e. no insights or action items) then you know it was just a waste of time. If most sessions end up with blank pages, then that’s a conference you shouldn’t attend next time around.
Acting On Your Learning
Before you leave to the conference there’s two things you need to do. One, is schedule a 30 minutes meeting with your team for the very first day when you arrive back in the office. The second is schedule a one hour slot for yourself either on the very first day or the very next day when you get back.
When you return, you already have a meeting scheduled with your team. Is 30 minutes long, so all those emails and fires can wait 30 mins for you to brief the team. That’s right, you’ll use that time to talk to them about the conference, the good, the bad, etc. And you will also show them your notes and give them an overview of what you’ve learned and what’s coming (action items) to each of them. This serves two purposes. First, with the conference still fresh in your mind you can accurately tell your staff what happened at the show and prepare them for what’s going to come their way, and second it helps you solidify what you learned during the show.
When you get to the second meeting you scheduled prior to leaving the office for that conference, you will then stop whatever you are doing and get all your notes out. Since all of them have an “action items” section at the bottom you can quickly go through your list and start identifying what needs to get done, prioritizing the tasks, and assigning them to appropriate team members (or to yourself).
I think you should also create one ‘master list’ of action items (add the conference name and date to the top) and save it somewhere you can find. If you need to refer back to the list or after 1 year don’t remember how good the conference was, just look at the list.
Sharing the Knowledge
If this process works for you, it is a good idea to show your team what you’ve done. Next time anyone from your group attends a conference or event that’s worth sharing with the team, it will be easier and more productive. As you go through your notes and action-items you are also deciding if this is an event you should go again next time around.
Summary of Conference Note Taking
1. Schedule a 30 mins meeting w/ your team to share what you learned from the show, and to talk about the action items
2. Schedule a 1 hour slot of ‘quiet time’ for you to go through your notes and assign tasks to your team
3. At the conference, write down at each session action items for you or your team to do based on the info provided
4. Back in the office, hold the meetings you have scheduled and share what you’ve learned, assign action items
5. Save the ‘master list’ for reference