I’m about two weeks out from my annual trek to the Orange Conference and I’ve been busy getting ready. I usually have responsibilities at Orange (this year I’m leading/hosting the NextGen Leaders track), but even before my friends at Orange gave me work to do, it’s been a long time since I simply “attended” a conference. Whether you’re getting ready to come to Orange or any of the other amazing conferences out there, I think there’s something important you should know about the conference experience.

This idea should frame your thinking about the entire conference experience: Who is more important than what. Let me explain.

Most people attend conferences because of the content they hope to come home with. Although certain people chose a conference because of the names on the speaker list, it’s the content that drive the conference experience for most. I’d like to suggest a different way of thinking. I think that you’ll get an amazingly better experience if you focus more on the who than the what.

I’ve been to the Orange Conference every year for the past seven years. I’ve been asked why I don’t mix it up more (honestly, I really should add a few extra conferences to my schedule). When I ask other people about where they are or are not coming to another conference, sometimes they say, “we figured we’d hear the same thing if we went there again.” Honestly, except for a few specific circumstances, content is one of the last reasons I attend a conference. It’s the people.

I attend Orange every year because where else am I going to spend 4 days with 6000+ of the sharpest ministry leaders in the country? One of the best experiences I ever had at Orange was the year I only made it to 3 main sessions and 3 breakouts. My schedule was so full meeting with ministry heroes of mine and ministry leaders I respect, I barely had time for breakouts.

So, here’s what this idea looks like practically:

  1. When choosing a breakout, put more weight on the speaker than the breakout description. Breakout descriptions are pure marketing. Fancy words to cast vision for what the breakout should be about. I’ve attended too many breakouts where the content sounded promising, but the communicator failed to deliver. Do some research. Find out who the communicator is. Where does she work? What has he done? Has he written any books or does she have a blog? I’d rather be totally inspired in a breakout where the content is a little different from what I was expecting than bored in a breakout that seemed to be the perfect fit for me.
  2. Tell your team that you’ll see them later. I totally get that a conference is a great opportunity to bond as a team and grow together. However, you get to spend the rest of the year with your staff. They’ll manage without you for a few days or at least for several hours every day. Commit to spending as much time as possible with people you don’t normally have access to. Never eat alone, but book every meal with someone you can learn from.
  3. Plan your agenda before you leave for the conference. Use twitter and facebook to find out who who is attending and begin reaching out. Don’t be afraid to reach out to breakout communicators, asking them for 15 minutes for coffee to pick their brain. Get as much as you can scheduled out before you even leave town.
  4. Make time for new relationships. Put on your extrovert hat when at the conference and look for people you need to learn from. I’ve met people in the registration lines that I’ve later shared meals with. Get to breakouts early and strike up conversations with others. Ask them why they picked this breakout or what they’re hoping to learn. You don’t have to lead with “how big is your church?” You don’t have to commit to a 15 minute conversation – just be friendly. After every breakout, go talk to the communicator. Ask a question. More importantly, listen to the questions that others are asking. It could be that one of the people asking the speaker a question is the person you need to eat lunch with.
  5. Buy the content to listen to later. Most conferences sell a package deal of all the content to digest later. Do that. Too often I see people rushing to get into the session when really great conversations are happening in the lobby. I’d like to suggest that some of the sharpest thinkers in ministry understand this as well and you’ll find them having conversations outside the auditorium.

There are some ideas for you. Get more out of your conference experience by making it about the people you need to learn from as opposed to the content you’re trying to digest. Do this, and you’ll get your content, but you’ll have some new relationships that are far more valuable.