Conferences are an ideal place to meet new people, reach out to industry leaders, and find answers to questions you didn’t even know to ask. As everyone says, your network and contacts can make all the difference in the next five to ten years.
Networking is easier said than done, though, and we know how nerve wracking small talk can be–never mind the business card swap and follow-up emails. Even extroverts struggle to keep up all day for several days in a row–networking is an ongoing learning process for everyone. That being said, here are our top ten tips for networking well at conferences.
- Know Your Targets: If you’re lucky enough to snag a seat at a conference like MIDTECH, take the time to review the speakers, sponsors, and exhibitors. Most conferences publish their attendee lists in advance (thanks, MIDTECH!) so you can do your research early. See who you want to meet and where they’ll be at the event. Make sure your schedule links up with theirs at least once, and make a considered effort to reach out beforehand to ensure a quick face-to-face.
- Don’t Waste Time: Most conferences are held (and co-sponsored) by a hotel. By booking a room an elevator ride away from the action, you’re ensuring that every second counts–you’ll waste less time commuting and be able to swing downstairs for impromptu dinners or cocktail hours. Keep in mind that you’ll probably need some time to decompress before and after your meetings–don’t book flights that bumper right up to the start and end times.
- Keep (At Least!) One Hand Free: Eat before you go. It may sound old-fashioned, but eating before events where food or drink is served ensures that you won’t be juggling a plate of food, a drink, and your phone or wallet. Keep one hand free for meeting new people and handing out business cards. While you’re at it, keep your drink or plate in the same hand all night, so you’re not shaking hands with condensation or pasta sauce between your fingers.
- Mitigate Shyness by Cheating: Show up to an event early, and let the crowd form around you. It helps to set up camp in a central place where groups will naturally congregate, allowing you to scope out your peers and potential contacts without feeling pressured to push into a crowd. It may be tempting to stick to a wall and watch from a distance, but pushing out of your comfort zone is one part bravery and one part planning; if you set up in the middle of a room, you’re less likely to disappear to the outskirts. Make an effort and see how well people react–confidence is a true “fake it until you make it” skill.
- Quality Over Quantity: Handing out your business card to every stranger you meet is one way to build contacts, yes, but it’s not very memorable. Keep your conversations meaningful, helpful, and ensure that you’re making a positive impression above all else. Networking is about finding the right connections, not all the connections. Bring a little humor and a lot of sincerity to the conversation (and keep the bragging to a minimum).
- Avoid Elevator Pitches: They seem slick and easy when you’re building them, but an elevator spiel has no place in a conference. Instead, begin a dialogue and let the conversation and connections happen organically. Forcing every skill you have into a five-minute speech isn’t going to help open any doors for you–no matter how witty. Tailor what you share to the specific conversation–idle or meaningless chit-chat is wasting both of your time.
- Leave Your Phone Alone: Giving your full attention–meaning no emails, no social media, and no phone calls–ensures that those you’re talking to feel confident that you’re invested in what they have to say. In the same vein, it’s not only impolite to scan the room for other potential conversations, but it can be severely off-putting and unprofessional. If you realize you don’t want to keep talking, wish the person success, thank them for the conversation, and make a graceful exit.
- Use Body Language to Your Advantage: If you’ve read almost any networking article, you know how important body language is in a conversation. Turn your body to face the person you’re talking to, look them in the eye, and offer a firm handshake. When you’re walking or waiting to join a conversation, don’t look at the ground, and smile. A welcoming attitude will be reciprocated.
- Have Questions: If you’ve read the speaking list, you know what topics will be discussed. Prepare and loosely memorize a few questions in advance, showcasing your knowledge of the subject and adding to the conversation. It’s fine to disagree, as long as you do so respectfully–it doesn’t hurt to be creative and original, either. If the speaker doesn’t offer a Q&A after their presentation, don’t hesitate to email your questions; if you want to really stand out, include the title of the presentation in your email header.
- Work in Teams: If you’re lucky enough to attend a conference with a business partner or contact, don’t hesitate to help each other initiate conversations, welcome each other to groups, or create new relationships. Be sure you’re not spending all your time speaking just with each other, but don’t be afraid to start your own conversation and draw others in. Knowing your wish-list of accomplishments for the conference (and vice versa) can help you cover ground more efficiently.