Conference Strategies 1: How to get the most out of a (Music) Conference
Article first published December 2018 for PRS Foundation, Keychange project.
I’ve divided this article into:
1) Before - Things to think about before you arrive
2) During - Making the most of the conference whilst you’re there
3) After – Once you get home. THIS IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART. If you skim everything else – at least read Part 3, OK? Cool.
To be honest, this article is (not so) secretly one long follow up strategy. Beginning before you even leave home for the conference.
Why? Because getting good value (for time, money and emotional energy spent) out of a music conference really happens after the conference is over. Why? Because it’s after you get home that you either distil the sparks of magic from your conference into career forwarding activity or you don’t. And that will happen entirely through follow up. Yours. Your follow up. Do not wait for other people to follow you up. That is not a thing.
I’m going to start by borrowing a quote from the author of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey “Begin with the end in mind.”
The overall end is of course getting your ideal music business or career to become your reality. Excellent. Do you know what your career or business looks like in its most successful form? Do you know how that business or career supports all the other important things in your life and not takes away from them?
If yes – what do you need this conference to give you so you can take the next step towards that?
If not – I recommend carving out some quiet time to give this some real thought before the conference.
Where are you in your career? What do you want more of? What do you want less of? What don’t you have enough of to move forward? What is your 5 year vision and how can this conference help you take the next step towards that?
Be as specific as you can. (The first time I ever did this, in the first year of running my own coaching practice, I wrote an outline of my ideal day in a year’s time – it had 13 specific things listed in my paragraphs of description – from the kind of shoes I’d finally get to wear to work (my favourite silver ones in case you were wondering) to the kind of clients I’d be working with (100% creative industries clients). When I reviewed it a year later I’d nailed 12 of them. Be specific. It works.
Why does being specific help at a conference. Won’t it limit who I might connect with?
The more specific the things are you are looking to get out of a conference the more likely you are to get them. Imagine going into a travel agent and saying I want to go somewhere warm. You might end up on one of several continents. In a desert, or by the beach, up a mountain, in a city. You can guarantee the travel agent is going to have to ask you a ton of questions. If you say I want to go to a quiet beach in southern Europe the travel agent will know immediately if they have what you are looking for. If they don’t they might send you to someone who does. Arrive at the conference with at least something or someone specific you are looking for – and have that be something that moves you towards that vision you’ve created of your ideal music career. You will no doubt have a ton of much wider and very interesting discussions than this, but if you don’t know specifically what you want to get out of going to this conference, how can you talk about it or go after it? Get clear before you go. It’s worth it.
The first time I was a Keynote speaker at a music conference, I got really clear what I wanted to move forward in my coaching practice. I realised it was my desire to start running retreats in sunny warm water locations with music industry women helping them to do the One Thing in their business or career that needed dealing with. First person I sat next to at that conference before I had even delivered my speech became my first retreat client a couple of months later. And yes she and her business partner very much enjoyed the wild dolphin swimming and business upgrading retreat I created for them, thanks for asking. And yes again – it happened because when she asked me what I was currently working on I could tell her clearly about the thing I wanted to get moving in a way that caught her interest and then, afterwards, I followed up.
If you are at an early stage of your career, and you’re not sure who you need to speak to, possibilities might include: a mentor, accountability groups, or the organisers of networks or events in your area supporting women in music.
DURING - making the most of the conference’s career building opportunities whilst you’re there
By the time you’re at a music industry conference almost every person there is talented, passionate or experienced enough to do whatever it is that forms the backbone of their career – be it making music, journalism, PR, management whatever. Most people assume you’re good enough at what you do or you wouldn’t be there. That’s not what you’re trying to prove. (And if anyone you meet 1:1 makes you feel like you need to prove yourself or justify your presence to them – walk away, they are officially awful and you can do better.) I digress. What someone you’re connecting with really wants to know is – are you going to be a good person to work with? Yes, as a musician your genre matters as much as your professionalism in some contexts. But even if you’re the perfect genre for an opportunity – building trust with someone who holds an opportunity is still time well spent. So what you’re really there to do is make solid connections by building trust.
Trust Building – Part 1
Remember that – this is all one long follow up strategy really - comment I made at the start? Yep. We’re still doing that.
So you’ve made a great or potentially great connection. An excellent way to build trust with them is to make a clear promise to follow your new connection up – meaning with a deadline that is measurable. E.g. I will email you on Tuesday after the conference to make a time to Zoom/WhatsApp video meet again. Or, I will send you the thing I promised.
--- v ---
Hey [amazing connection that you made]!
Remember me? It’s Tuesday and I said I’d email you that link/introduce you to xyz. Here I am…doing what I promised, right on time.
--- v ---
People now see you as reliable. This is a very very good thing. Because people do business with other people they know like AND TRUST. Just knowing or liking you is sometimes enough. But why risk it?
Make a list of your promises.
Write down what you promised and to who, you may even want to include a clarifying reminder who someone is – (met them in x place, they know y) so you don’t forget in the chaos and delights of conferencing. Also, you may have consumed alcohol. This is not a great memory aid in general. Do what you need to do to be as good as your word.
Trust Building Strategy - Part 2.
Listening. Being interested in others. This is a gift more precious than rubies. I’m not exaggerating. We humans, largely, love to feel listened to.
Take a moment and think of someone you know who is really good at listening. How does it make you feel when they listen without interrupting? Listen without fiddling with their phone? Listen and make eye contact? Use “Yes, and” - to affirm and add to what you just said, and not “Yes, but” to critique or correct you? Do you have a warm fuzzy feeling right now? Yeah, that. Be a good listener at a conference, you’ll stand out.
You will also, very helpfully, get a good idea of whether or not you have something that might be of use to the person you were speaking to. Possible useful things you have to offer (even if you consider yourself less experienced/less shiny than the person you’re talking to):
online article link related to your new connection’s interests
a new blog/podcast for someone to follow
new artists to listen to (that aren’t necessarily you or your band)
industry professional that they are looking for to develop their career
international connection they need but don’t have yet
So you’re building on that good listener impression and adding to that sense of trustworthiness. You can then follow up with whatever you’ve promised, exactly at or before the agreed time. More trust built.
But how do you make sure you get what you need?
Well, now you know what you want to get out of the conference, you are ready to ask for or talk about it. Tap the wisdom in the conference. If you meet someone who you connect with and they seem really excited to help you – the more specific you can be with what you want help with the better. E.g. I want to find funding or a manager or a label is too general, too broad. It requires the person you’re talking with to ask a whole load more questions to get clarification. It makes it seem you’re not sure what you’re looking for. The more specific the better. E.g. I want to find someone who funds music projects with a social justice perspective, I want to find a label that supports black metal artists.
Decide who you want to meet and know why/how do they fit with your goals/intentions for the conference. Start checking the speaker and delegates list as soon as it goes up, there may be some stand out obvious people you want to be sure to connect with. If so, set up some meetings for your time at the conference before you even get there. Two weeks out is normal. Last minute is still better than not at all. After the fact also works. E.g. I was hoping to bump into you at the conference, but how about a virtual chat now instead?
Decide on your contacts sharing/gathering strategy
Are you an exchanging business card person? – a card for a card? Or a card (theirs) for an item that’s not a card of yours. Before deciding that your item is a recording of your music or other quirky item – always remember what Derek Sivers’ (of CD Baby fame) says:
Assume that anything you hand someone at a conference will be thrown out. So don’t do it, unless they ask.
Instead, if you want them to have something of yours, send it to them afterwards.
The best time to get down to business is when they’re alone, back at their office, a week or two after the conference, undistracted, and can give you their full one-on-one attention.
Other contact information sharing options:
Have one card and get people to photograph you holding it up next to your face.
Or make them do that with their own card so you can photograph them. This is a great strategy if you are someone who remembers faces better than names. Or if you forget your cards (but have one lone stray tucked in your bag somewhere. And you can always print your info out once nicely in the hotel/conference centre/local print place and do this same thing too.) If you don’t have the time or money to get new cards right now or you feel a bit embarrassed about the cards you have, designing and printing out one for this kind of use is also a great strategy.
Or conversely have stand out amazing cards if it will make you happy and make you more likely to hand them out.
Use a merch item (although – again remember what Derek Sivers said - it’s better to hold off and send your merch or music to the person directly a week or two after the conference). Yeah. Do it as follow up.
Please note, swapping social media contacts is not the same as getting an email address or mobile number. Unless the contact information you have enables you to message someone directly on a platform you know they regularly check, and email address or mobile number is still your best contact. As more and more music industry folk are considering ways to protect their mental health, you don’t want to fall foul of a social media fast, or them going cold turkey on a particular platform. Also age wise, different generations use platforms differently. Email addresses and mobile numbers are always golden.
All that said, getting what you want isn’t very likely to happen at the conference. Any more than the travel agent can magic you straight onto that beach from their office. What you want is going to happen in the end for one reason only. You already know what I’m going to say...
Here is My Biggest Top Secret Tip to World Class follow up.
Actually do the follow up.
Really. That’s it.
I have a whole other article about overcoming Follow Up Challenges, but really, there’s no big mystery. Just do it.
A lot of people go to conferences, make a lot of good connections, gather a lot of business cards or email addresses from people who they could help or with people who could help them but never see either happen because they don’t follow up. By a lot, I honestly mean MOST. Most people who go to conferences do terrible, as in no, follow up. Which is the cardinal sin, the very worst thing you can do as part of conferencing. Unless you are there just to have fun, follow up is the most important part of the whole experience.
You’ve made a list of who you agreed to contact with or about what and by when during the conference. So do it.
Whatever you do, do the follow up. It works. It’s the thing that works to make a conference a genuine career building strategy.