Conference Management 101: Four Tips for Organizing Information

At the turn of the millennia, while the world was rejoicing in making it successfully through Y2K without disaster, I was excited and rejoicing in my new world as a budding music educator. In January 2000, I attended my first-ever professional conference as a freshman in college, M.E.N.C. (Music Educators National Conference).

Here we are 17 years later, and since my professional focus has shifted to piano rather than choral education, I’m soon headed to the 2017 Music Teachers National Association Conference in Baltimore, MD.

2016 MTNA Conference, San Antonio, Texas




I love every minute – I really do, and that’s why I want to share with you a bit on the topic today. You may be wondering, though, what I mean by “managing” conferences.

Put it this way – do you KNOW how many different topics are getting thrown into your brain before lunch?! Ha! If you’ve ever attended a conference, you know what I mean!

We are presented with so much good information it can be easy to walk away and not implement half of what we want to accomplish.

Michael Hyatt hits it spot on when he says:

Information you can’t find or use isn’t information. It’s noise.

So, we need to plan how to take in the information in a way that doesn’t just add to the stack of cool ideas that never get used. In other words, we don’t want all the information to get “lost in the noise.”

I want you to walk away from a conference feeling like all you’ve learned is easily retrievable and, in turn, useful. I’ll also give you a little peek into my own process, including how I utilize Evernote.

First, a little conference-attendance pep-talk.


The Case for Conferencing

Let’s get the elephant out of the room before we continue.

Can conferences be expensive to attend?
For sure.

As (often) self-employed teachers, do we lose a week of billable teaching hours?
Yes, but mindset and planning can make a big difference in making it happen guilt-free.

Does it mean time away from family?
Usually – unless you bring the family along for a little getaway.

Will I regret taking the time and money?
Highly unlikely. I have never heard a teacher say that they regretted the time, effort, or funds it took to attend a professional event. The rewards far outweigh the cost.

What if the question we actually asked ourselves is not can we afford to attend but can we really afford not to?

Don’t get me wrong – yes, a lot of logistics come into play that has to make it viable. However, what we may gain may be greater than the cost in the end. I consider it an investment.

For a few years, after I got my master’s degree and opened my own studio, I didn’t attend conferences and, in hindsight, felt like I may have set myself back. I was trying to avoid expenses as I grew the business, but I also could have gained valuable growth as a teacher and insight on how to grow my business more quickly.

In today’s world, we have ample opportunity for professional development, whether it’s a full-blown conference (which is still the gold I want you to go for), an online conference, or a professional development event.

While being able to attend online conferences is convenient and a blessing for many who can’t make the trek to a location. There’s still nothing like attending a live conference, as there’s nothing more powerful than a shared experience.

Clinton Pratt and I briefly met each other in high school when we participated in a two-week-long summer music group. We reunited when running into each other at the 2016 OMTA Conference at Kent State University!

As Sam Holland once stated in his “Questions and Answers” article in the May/June 2015 edition of Clavier Companion: 

We are social animals. We learn from one another in direct exchanges… A live conference is an IMMERSIVE experience in which you leave the regular workday world behind and immerse yourself morning, noon, and night.

The more I attend conferences, and the longer I teach, not only do I continually get new ideas and inspiration from sessions, but sometimes I love the feeling of simply reinforcing to myself what I already know and believe as an educator.

Often, I learn more from my colleagues than in sessions, whether over coffee with a new friend, at state dinners, or talking into the wee hours of the morning in the hotel lobby.

Lunch with my friend Joy Morin and Indiana colleagues Karen Thickstun (Butler U) and Lori Rhoden (Ball State U) at the 2016 Conference in San Antonio.

After one of our Indiana State Conferences, a friend and colleague sent me an email that said:

Hey, Amy, I just wanted to let you know I really enjoyed the conference, but I especially enjoyed getting to pal around with you and others in the hotel lobby.

So, this is my plea to you – if you’ve never attended a conference or if you rarely make it to conferences, I promise it will be worth your time and effort.

Now, on to some organizational strategies!


“Managing” Conferences

I have four major tips for you to consider when it comes to organizing yourself and not letting the amazing amount of information overwhelm you at conferences.

  1. Have a plan for how you want to save the information, and be consistent with that plan.
  2. Be intentional about what and how much you allow into your brain (really!) It’s better to sit out a session or two and take the time to absorb what you’ve learned than to intake so much you feel more overwhelmed than inspired. Sometimes more is less.
  3. Take time to process and organize the information at the conference (even if it means sitting out a session or two). At most, process all your notes no later than the following week.
  4. Keep an ongoing action list during the conference (one note) for key items you want to implement moving forward.

Of these three points, we need to talk in a little more detail about making a plan and creating an action list.


Have a Plan and Be Consistent

There are a few questions to ask yourself as you’re considering how you will save all of your conference notes and handouts.

How do you like to take notes?

  1. Handwritten directly on the handout or on a separate paper
  2. Handwritten in a digital paper app (such as Goodnotes) using a stylus
  3. Typed directly into your tablet or laptop note-taking app

How do you want to store and retrieve the notes and handouts long-term?

  1. Digital
  2. Hardcopy
  3. (Both?)

If you’re storing things digitally, HOW and WHERE are you storing them? Can you find a way to store your notes and handouts TOGETHER rather than having the handout in your document storage and your notes in another app?

If you’re storing the hardcopy, HOW and WHERE will you keep them? It needs to be in a place that’s easy to refer to in the future and doesn’t just get lost in a stack of papers or the back of a file drawer.

In general, work toward a plan that will allow you to keep your notes and handouts TOGETHER rather than (for example) typing notes and then keeping the hardcopy handout in a folder in your file drawer somewhere.

Here are a few example scenarios:

  • You take handwritten notes directly on the handout, but afterward, scan and file it digitally and throw away the hard copy.
  • You download the digital handout into a note-taking app (like Evernote) and then type notes into that same note where the handout lives.
  • During the session, you download the digital handout or scan the hard copy directly into a program (like Evernote or Goodnotes), so you can write on the digital copy directly using a stylus.

For scanning documents, I recommend either Scannable (for Evernote) or Genius Scan.

There are lots of wonderful digital information storage tools these days to help us through this process. Next, I’ll share in a bit more detail how I have found Evernote useful in making my own plan.


How I Use Evernote at Conferences

Evernote is a cloud-based app for storing information. Think of it as a digital filing cabinet. Its ability to save various formats in one place – including basic text notes, PDF files, images, and bookmark links – is why I find it highly valuable for taking in information during conferences.

Not only can you save various formats, but you can also save all of those formats inside one note. Here’s an example of notes I took for a session, including typed text notes and a scanned handout in PDF format. (You can even open the PDF and annotate on the PDF directly in Evernote.)

I could have also inserted a picture from the live presentation, and a bookmark link to a resource the presenter suggested into that note.

Inside Evernote, I like to create one note for every session I attend.

A few things to notice in this example:

  • The note is titled by year, conference, session title, and presenter. The order is intentional as it helps sort the list of notes visually. Including the title and presenter makes it more easily searchable. So, if I want to look up notes from a session and remember the presenter’s name but not the session’s name, it’s easier to find them using the search bar.
  • I have included the session description. This may be a bit tedious for some, but I type quickly and like including it.
  • I include an “action” statement. Rather than just taking notes, forcing yourself to state an action helps make what you learn feel more implementable in the future. I then copy that same action statement into my “Action Note” (our 4th organizational point, which I’ll address at the end of the post).

Every note is labeled with the tag “conference sessions” so I can view all my notes from every session I’ve ever attended in one place (well, at least since I started using this format!)


Create An Action List

The fourth major thing I want to encourage you to utilize in your organization plan is to create ONE action list. That is, one place to see everything you want to implement in list form.

I also like to use this list as a “mental dumping ground.” When I’m away from day-to-day work, random thoughts tend to creep in, and it’s nice to have a place to jot down notes to myself in one place – even if they aren’t related to the sessions. (They’re listed as “miscellaneous” action items.)

Here’s an example of the action list I created from the last conference I attended. Try to use action verbs on this list as much as possible, like “read,” “create,” and “watch.” (I realize my example below isn’t a good example of this, but it’s just something that can be helpful.)

Once you get home from the conference, visit the note daily for at least a week to do everything you can to action those items!



A quick recap:

  1. Have a plan and be consistent.
  2. Attend a little less so you can absorb more.
  3. Take time to organize your notes during the conference.
  4. Keep an ongoing action list.

I hope you found all of these tips helpful!

Tell me, what do you love about conferences, and how do you tend to manage the wealth of information?



  • Love this post! I REALLY like your management system! Thanks for sharing. That is one thing I struggle with at times. Conferences can feel like a brain overload. But by listing action steps on what you want to do or look into can be SO helpful! And then the chances are higher that you will actually implement the ideas. Wonderful! 🙂

  • What great tips for making the most of conferences. I can really relate to the conference inspiration–returning home–implementing a few things and forgetting the rest syndrome. I agree–organization, setting aside time right away for reflection and planning, then immediate follow-up or creating and constantly reviewing action plans are the keys to implementing the great ideas and resources gained.

    I find that if I have a post-conference meeting with a colleague specifically to discuss what we gained from the conference, I’m more likely to implement what excited me there. First, it forces us to review those things instead of letting them sit. Second, we can bounce ideas off each other, and third, it gives us a second wind. So often there’s a bit of a let-down after a conference as we get back to real life. This gives us fresh wind in our sails!

    And thank you so much for the list of professional growth opportunities. There are always new ones we can find when we share resources with each other!

    • Ooh…an art form. I like that! That’s way better than calling myself an organizational nerd or OCD! LOL.

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