You know the rest. But, is the rest right? I'm writing this on the plane as I leave Las Vegas having just spoken at a convention attended by 80,000 participants. On any given day, thousands of conventions, meetings, and seminars are held throughout the country. You may have been to one. It might be your local construction or homebuilders association. In fact, some people are professional conference attendees. They attend every one they can. But, for them, and I hope NOT you, "what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas." And that is a waste of time and money.
Some professions are more focused on improvement than others. Architects have a continuing education requirement, as do professional speakers who wish to attain and maintain the Certified Speaking Professional designation. Skilled trades encourage development as a path to higher wages. Contractors however are not known for continuing education. In all cases, the goal is to learn and get better. Some of this learning will benefit your company or organization. All of it will benefit you - if you don't leave it in Vegas.
Some research suggests that much of the money invested in training is wasted because people don't put into practice what they learned; they leave it in Vegas. Here are a few pointers to help you get more bang for your buck:
Have a pre-program/meeting plan - You have a pretty good idea of what the program/meeting will offer. So, figure out what you don't know, or who you want to meet, before you get there. Once you understand your strengths and weaknesses in a given area, you can determine the key things you'll want to learn at the program. Then, you will be better able to hone in on that material and retain it.
Be involved at the program - Don't be a wallflower; actively listen to what's being said. Sit toward the front of the room. You don't have to be in the front row; 4th or 5th row is fine. (When you sit in back, you become less engaged, more distracted.) Make eye contact with the speaker; it will enhance your retention. Take notes. Not only will this help you stay focused on what's being said, but years later, you'll find that these notes are a great reference tool! And you might be surprised to see that you have actually done something with the material. Or, you may see that you are now in better position to do something with it. Trust me-I've sat through plenty of bad presentations. But I can usually get something out of every one of them, if I pay attention.
If the event is more about networking and less about education then network. I know it is painful and I confess it isn't my favorite thing to do but I recognize how important it is and I prepare for it. I read the newspaper that day to be up on current events. I learn the names and firms of Board members and I try to at least meet them. Over time this moves me from once in a while attendee to regular participant and I get treated that way too.
Develop a post-program action plan - Write down what you are going to do and when you will begin doing it. Research points to the first 24-72 hours after your program as being the best time to enact behavior changes and begin use of new material. It also tells us that, if you wait longer than 72 hours, you probably won't capitalize on what you learned, and the potential for improvement will be lost.
You don't have to undertake a major endeavor right off the bat; just do something to get you moving. An action plan is the perfect way to track your short-term and long-term goals. For some folks, it's a difficult step -- but it's also the one with the biggest impact. You might need some help. If your boss sends you to a program, come back and brief him or her on what you learned, how you'd like to use that knowledge to benefit the organization… and what they can do to help you succeed.
If you met people send a follow-up note. This might just be a reminder of who you are and how you enjoyed talking with them or it may be a piece of information they might be interested in. You can do this in an e-mail but I like snail mail these days as a way to break through the clutter. When is the last time you got a hand written note or card from someone?