How To Network at Conferences

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I don’t really enjoy attending large industry conferences when I don’t know anyone. Is it just me, or does the idea of trying to meet new people at a crowded, loud trade event make you want to run for the hills? Small talk doesn’t come easy for most people and talking about the weather only goes so far. Attending industry events and trade shows is a requirement for many of us, and I’ve gotten better. I figure, if I have to spend time away from my children to attend these events, I might as well make them as fun and valuable as possible. Here’s my advice for surviving and thriving at your next conference.

Spend some time strategizing

Yes, strategize about your event before you go. Depending on the size of the event and the venue, you may not be able to meet everyone. Think about what you hope to get out of the conference. Do you want to find an “in” who can help you in your job search, do you want to meet others in your line of work, or are you looking to develop a specific skill set? Ask other coworkers if they attended the event in years past and whether there are any “must see” or “must meet” speakers. Your goals will inform which panels you attend and who you want to meet. I also find it helpful to create a list of questions and a short summary of my background so that I’m prepared to use them as conversation starters at the event.

You can start your “wish list” by looking at the attendee list. If the event organizer doesn’t provide one, ask for it with contact information so that you can reach out to other attendees in advance. Look for names you recognize or others who live in your city. Spend some time reviewing their LinkedIn profiles and see if any of them are your “dream” connection or have some other connection in common with you. Post an update on your LinkedIn or other social media profile to find out if any of your friends or connections will be there. Knowing that even a distant acquaintance will be at your conference can remove the intimidation factor.

Make the most of your time at the event

Maximize your time at the event by meeting as many people as you can. When I attend events alone, I always pick my seat purposefully by sitting next to someone who also looks like she doesn’t know anyone. It’s easy to exchange business cards or start conversation about the panel you just saw with the person sitting next to you. I also change my seat several times during the event for the same reason. While in line for coffee or the ladies room, introduce yourself to the person behind or in front of you; you’re all waiting anyway. If you recognize someone from another event, go over and say hello. Asking where someone is from is an easy conversation starter and I don’t know any woman who doesn’t appreciate or respond to a compliment about what they’re wearing.

It can be tempting to push your own agenda when you meet new people; after all, you only have limited time to network at these events. That may not be the best approach. It’s fine to talk about yourself, but with limits. I speak at many industry events and few things are more of a turnoff than a pushy salesperson who boasts about the latest software product, insists on scheduling a demonstration and won’t take no for an answer. You will be more successful by being a good listener. Getting to know new people can be a better use of time instead of handing out your business card to as many people as possible without having real conversations.

Don’t forget to introduce yourself to the speakers at the event. I love when people approach me after my speaking engagements. Even if the speakers don’t stay for other conference sessions, you can usually catch them after their own panels or possibly at social events at the conference. Ask questions during the sessions, which can be natural conversation starters for an introduction afterwards. That’s also a great way to meet other attendees, who might appreciate the questions you asked. You can also ask the event organizer to introduce you to the speakers if you’re reluctant to approach them yourself.

I almost always recommend against burying yourself in your personal device during conferences, except for Twitter. It can be a great tool to use at events. You can post questions and highlight points of interest in real time during the event. Some conference organizers create hashtags just for the event and panelists may take questions via Twitter. You can attach a photo to your Twitter handle so that others can find you during the next break.

Create a contact file and follow up

One of my best tips is to write down something about everyone you met at the conference while it’s fresh in your mind. You can do this on your phone, in an email to yourself, or even the back of all of the business cards you received at the event. Find a system that works for you and calendar a follow up with your new contact at least once per year. Write down the date and name of the conference so you can remember where you met and something special about your new contact. If your new contact told you something interesting about her job or family, write it down. Think about follow up questions you want to ask your new contacts and write those down, too. All of these are natural conversation starters for your next outreach. Look for opportunities to follow up with or help your contacts. It can be as simple as forwarding articles that you think your new contacts will find interesting or inviting them to meet up next time you’re in their city. You can also create Google alerts to stay updated about their activities.

Few work activities inspire more fear and loathing than networking, but it is a vital part of your career. You can get information that will make you more valuable at your current job, meet new people who can introduce you to amazing career opportunities, and it can be a great way to make friends.  Don’t be afraid to go alone: a little planning can remove the intimidation factor.

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