15 things to think about before, during and after attending your next conference [CHECKLIST]


Person at podium with text "are you conference ready?"

[This post is adapted from the talk that I recently gave at #ThinkGood2018 – a free conference presented annually by the NPO Service Provider’s Network in Cape Town as part of our individual Mandela Day contributions. If you’re in Cape Town would like to join in next year, make sure to sign up to my list to find out as soon as tickets are available – they go quickly!] 

You’ve registered to attend or present at that upcoming conference  – exciting! But are you and your team set to take advantage of all the great marketing and networking opportunities conferences provide? Use these tips and the checklist to make sure your organization is conference ready in no time.

I’ve worked with lots of organizations prepping for events and conferences – whether it’s a big event on the conference calendar like the annual AIDS conference or another national conference convened by donors and government partners. There’s always so much to do in the days leading up to the event – making sure your day-to-day work is taken care of so you can attend, tying up loose ends, finishing your presentation – you rarely have time to think strategically about the opportunity the conference presents for marketing and networking. Just like you wouldn’t show up at a party empty-handed, though, you also don’t want to arrive without the right materials to make the most of the event.

What do I need to do to get conference ready?

Here’s a list of things you should think about before you turn on your out-of-office responder:

Before the conference:

  • Business cards: Make sure your business cards are up-to-date, reflecting your current contact information and job title. There’s nothing worse than spending every few minutes crossing out a mobile phone number or email address that’s no longer in use! Also make a plan for how you’ll capture the information on cards given to you at the event. I like to immediately write a quick note on the back of the card to help me remember the person, and then each evening I scan the cards (with my phone) and import the info into an app like Evernote, where I add in a few notes and how I might want to connect in the future. 
  • Organizational or program information: Make sure you have up-to-date brochures, one-pagers, fact sheets or info cards about the organization or specific program you represent. They don’t have to be anything super fancy or costly to produce – a simple double-sided flyer can be enough, or even a postcard. (If you have time and budget for fancy – fantastic! You’ll really make an impression). If all you have are outdated ones, make a plan to refresh them before the conference or leave them at home. You don’t want to spend your time talking about how things have changed. 
  • Banners: If you have a stand or are doing a major presentation, it’s often useful to have an organizational banner. A popular style are the vertical roll-up banners – they can pack up quite small so they’re easy to travel with and use at conferences.

DESIGN TIP: Make sure your banners have large enough type so that they can be read from far away, and keep them as simple as possible – your logo, brand colors, maybe a tagline should really be all you need, along with an eye-catching design.

Website: Your presentation or flyers or research poster will likely drive traffic to your website while you’re at the conference – don’t waste the opportunity. Make sure that your website is up to date and is easy to navigate.

  • Social Media: Make it easy for people to connect via social media if you’re active there with prominent icons, handles, or hashtags you use on all your materials (including presentations and posters).  Start posting ahead of the conference to generate excitement, especially for the sessions you’re presenting at, the publications you’re launching, or the side events you’re hosting. 
  • Research or presentation posters: For conferences like IAS where organizations present original research, you’ll get the specs well in advance of the conference that you’ll need to follow. Many things will be specified, from the dimensions to the orientation. Though you’re likely to have lots to say, try and keep the posters as visual and illustrative as possible. You want to catch people’s eye and draw them in – remember that people will be seeing many many posters and will only have time to stop and read a few. You can always create a link back to the full research on the poster. Also, don’t forget to plan far enough in advance to design a really great poster – you often have to submit them BEFORE the event, and you need to leave time to create the layout and print the poster.

DESIGN TIP: Designing large-scale posters on a small screen can be tricky. A good rule of thumb is that text should be as large as possible to be legible – headlines no less than 36pt, and body text no less than 24pt (or larger if better! Cut that text down as much as possible to still get the message across, use diagrams and images whenever possible).


  • Publications: Many organizations use big conferences as an opportunity to launch a big publication such as a new strategy or a major toolkit or other resource. Make sure to finalize the design and printing well in advance of the conference, looking in to printing copies locally rather than carting them with you if traveling a long distance (though budget plenty of time for delivery to the venue). Also, think carefully about the numbers you’re going to print. A cost-conscious option is to include QR codes on postcards or conference posters/banners that direct interested readers to a URL where they can easily download the report in full, or creating a “summary” doc of a longer report that you can more easily share.

PRO TIP: There’s always a lot of competing “noise” at large conferences. To have a better chance of getting your publication noticed think about hosting a side event or a reception alongside the main conference to publicize the launch, or doing additional PR to promote the publication, focused on the problem it solves or the issue that it tackles.


  • Presentations: If your staff are speaking at the conference, make sure to use the opportunity to raise the profile of your organization and work. Have a cleanly branded PowerPoint presentation that is used by all presenters from your organization. Where possible, use a standardized set of slides to introduce the organization and work you do so that everyone stays on message.

WORD OF CAUTION: PowerPoint is notoriously fickle when it comes to design. If you design a beautiful presentation in PowerPoint that uses your organization’s fonts and you need to load it on someone else’s computer, the fonts won’t appear unless that same font is loaded on their machine! This can have a massive impact on the look (and even readability!) of your presentation. A safer way is to PDF your presentation and share that, which locks in the style elements. You may lose some of the fancy animation bells and whistles, though.


  • Connect personally ahead of time: If you know you want time with a particular organization or donor during the conference, it’s best to reach out before hand and make a plan to meet up for a lunch or dinner together, or grab a coffee between sessions. You can even just connect via social media and introduce yourself and say you’re looking forward to meeting in person at the conference. These personal connections can be a great way to enhance your conference experience.



During the conference:

  • Stay present: While you’re undoubtedly busy, try your best to clear your schedule so you’re able to make the most of the conference experience. I find this especially important if it’s a local conference – it’s all to easy to think you’ll just pop in to the office for that quick meeting, and to find yourself hours later embroiled in some issue and missing the conference sessions. Make every effort to block off the day/time, set up an autoresponder, and designate a few set times when you’ll check email and phone into the office for emergencies. If you can be present you’ll get much more from the whole experience. 
  • Stay on message: Make sure to keep the goal and key messages in your mind as you present and interact with other participants. 
  • Social media: Live tweeting or posting on social media platforms from the conference is a great way to connect with other attendees – just don’t go overboard! Make sure that you take the time to connect with people who are engaging with your posts, rather than just talking *at* people. Assign social media responsibilities to your team members to make sure that it isn’t neglected. If there’s no one with you who can directly post, make sure to send a few choice pieces of info or pics back to your Comms team so that they can post them for you. 
  • Build your email list: Conferences can be great opportunities to collect emails to add to your organization’s email list, but you need to do it in a way that’s a) legal and b) not annoying. You can’t assume that everyone who hands you a business card wants to be on your mailing list – they have to actively opt-in to your list for you to send them marketing emails and newsletters in the future. Make sure to have a way for people to clearly sign up to your list – whether it’s a simple list where you collect handwritten email addresses (that clearly tells people what they’re signing up for at the top), or an ipad with a sign-up form linked to your email provider. Depending on the nature of the conference and your participation (whether you have a booth, are speaking, hosting an event, etc.) you can also get creative about how you incentivize people to sign up – holding a competition, or offering a resource in exchange for an email address. 

After the conference:

  • Follow up with connections: Make a plan for contacting and following up with everyone who signed up for your list at the conference within a week or two after the event – even just a short email will remind them why they’re hearing from you and keep you top of mind. Personally email the contacts you collected business cards from about an issue that you were both interested in. Thank partners and donors for taking the time to meet with you or support your publication launch. Connect with people using your hashtags or commenting on your social media posts. A little connection goes a long way to establishing lasting relationships. 
  • Debrief and make notes for next year: Spend a few minutes connecting with your team (or reflecting solo) on what went well, what didn’t, and things you want to remember for next year.  Do you need to plan further in advance for that big publication you want to launch? Did you forget to factor in the printing time needed for your new banner? Place the notes somewhere where you can easily access it before next year’s conference – make use of things like delayed email sending to schedule an email to pop into your inbox with your reflections next year, or save it on your organization’s drive in a folder titled “XX Conference 2019”, for example. 

Overall, you want to make it easy for people to engage with you and your content at the conference – you want them to easily understand the information you’re sharing in your presentation, publication or research poster, and give them easy ways to stay connected with you in a variety of different ways once the conference is over. 

It sounds like a lot, and you might be worrying a bit if you’ve got an event right around the corner. Don’t stress – just do what you can this time around, and note a more ideal timeline in your post-conference reflection. Next time you’ll know exactly what you need to do!

Happy conference-ing!


Next steps

To guide you through the audit, I’ve put together a checklist and a sample timeline to help you think through all the moving pieces and when (ideally) you should make sure they’re done – you can download it below. Take a few minutes to read through it and start to create your own timeline and pre-conference plan and you’ll be on your way!

I’d love to hear what you’re plan is to get ready for your next conference – please drop me a line. What are your main goals for the conference? Are you planning to launch any publications or present a conference poster? What’s your biggest challenge?

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