Guide to Networking at Conferences
A Guide to Networking at Conferences
No matter what industry you are in, it is no secret that one of the best opportunities to network with the best and brightest in your field is at conferences. Conferences are typically gatherings of like-minded folks from your industry on the local, regional and even national level, giving you a rare chance to meet all sorts of contacts in a single setting.
Networking at conferences may seem like a breeze for old pros, but it is a skill that can take time to learn. Figuring out ways to meet people and deciding what to say at networking events is not something that comes naturally for everybody.
Here we will lay out some tips for networking at conferences including how to prepare, what to say when you make your introductions and how to maintain contacts after the conference is over. Before long you will be rubbing elbows with the many influencers in your industry, perhaps on your way to becoming one yourself.
Preparing for the Conference
Like just about anything in life, the more prepared you are for a conference, the more likely you are to deliver a strong performance. Here are some quick things to think about even before the conference takes place:
- Who will be in attendance: Whether it is a particular businesses you would like to touch base with or individuals you would like to meet, be sure to check out who will be there and which events might give you the best chance for some face time.
- The physical lay of the land: Most conferences will provide you with a map of the main conference floor to give you an idea of who will be where. Use this to your advantage by planning your route ahead of time to ensure you hit all of your key targets.
- Glean the event schedule: In addition to the main floor, most conferences host a slew of other side events such as panel discussions, seminars or demonstrations. Be sure to take a look at the schedule ahead of time and plan your days to maximize the opportunities you make for yourself.
Opening Conversation Strategies
When learning how to network at conferences, the first thing to teach yourself is how to open a conversation with someone you have probably never met. This can be an intimidating prospect, particularly if you are normally introverted or shy. It is common knowledge that a strong first impression can go a long way. Here are a few quick tips for how to open a conversation:
- Smile and make eye contact: Even before you say a word, your body language will go a long way toward impacting the first impression you make.
- Try a bit of flattery: You do not need to get over the top or cheesy, but if you respect or admire somebody you are meeting in person for the first time, try to present that in a friendly and complimentary way.
- Be natural: This can be easier said than done if you are nervous or shy, but these events are about talking to people. Begin your conversations with new people just the way you would with friends or family. It may feel awkward at first, but it will not take long for you to get into a comfortable routine.
What to Say
No perfect guide tells you exactly what to say in each given situation. Still, there are some guidelines you can keep in mind to help you get through the bulk of most conversations:
- Keep it brief, but not too brief: You do not want to talk someone's ear off so that you are remembered as the person that would not let go. At the same time, you do not want to say so little that you are forgotten altogether. It can be a bit of a balancing act, but be sure to get your points across, be cordial and move on. If all goes well, there is a good chance you will have more time to talk later.
- Remain relevant: This applies in particular during your first encounter with someone you have never met before. While you do not want to ramble on about your skills and accomplishments for hours, you do want to give them something to remember you by. For each person you are looking to meet, be sure to pass along a relevant fact or tidbit that will paint yourself in a positive light.
- Turn the tables: One surefire way to keep the other person interested is to get them talking about themselves. It is a good way to ensure you can spend some time with someone, but you also want to make sure you get a chance to sprinkle in some info about yourself. Like any good conversation, try to use a little give and take.
- Be interesting: Admittedly, this can be like telling someone, "be good at basketball." Some people just have it, and others do not. But this is where your preparation can come into play. Arrive ready with plenty of interesting stories or experiences in your arsenal, and be sure not to go to the same well too often. You do not want to become known as a one-trick pony or someone who tells the same handful of stories over and over again.
What Not to Say
Here are some things you may want to avoid saying to reduce the risk of making a bad first impression:
- Where is the bar?: If someone thinks the only reason you are at a conference or networking event is for the free food or drinks, it will be hard for them to take you seriously. Do not get us wrong, the food and drinks at many of these events are an excellent perk. But the primary purpose is to network and make connections, so be sure not to lose sight of that fact.
- Here is my card: Yes, you do want to distribute as many of your business cards as you can. At the same time, you do not want to push them on people. Instead, you want them to be requested. Do not worry, if your conversation goes the right way, you will get asked if you have a business card. When you do, be sure to return the favor and ask for their card as well.
- Can you get me a job?: Making contacts that can help you down the right career path is another common goal of conferences and networking events. You do not want to come across as desperate. As people get to know you and your skill set, it will become apparent over time if you are a good fit for a position they may know of. Flat out asking if someone can get you hired can be a bit of a turn off in the conversation. As we have mentioned before, let the conversation play out organically to consistently come up with the best results.
- Nothing at all:You can learn a lot at networking events by listening and taking in all of the information you come across, but you have to speak at some point. After all, it is not all about gaining knowledge; you want to give others some knowledge about you as well. Saying nothing or speaking too little can give people the impression that you have nothing to offer. There is such a thing as talking too much, but it is still probably a better alternative than not talking enough. How else are people going to learn about you?
- That is a terrible idea: Even if you do hear a bad idea — and believe us, you will come across some bad ideas — try not to volunteer up negative feedback. If someone asks your opinion on something that just does not do it for you, turn it into a constructive criticism situation. Something like, "this particular portion does not seem to work for me, but I like this other part." Constructive criticism is one thing, but being known as someone who routinely offers up negative opinions is another.
How to Present Yourself
When it comes to professional conferences and networking events, the most important thing you can offer is ideas. Your physical appearance should not be of major importance, but it would be naïve to think that it does not play a role in the first impression you make on people.
That said, it is not about how good looking you are or are not. You cannot control your genes, but what you can control is the way you choose to present yourself. You do not have to be a supermodel or a fashion expert, but there are three easy things you can do to make sure you look and feel your best:
- Dress appropriately: This should go without saying, but you may be surprised how many people seem to ignore this. In a professional setting, you need to make sure you dress like a professional. Do not be the one in shorts and flip-flops when everyone else is wearing business-casual attire. That said, some events are more casual than others, and you do not want to show up in a tuxedo or ball gown when something much more casual would suffice.
- Wear clothes that fit: Dressing the part is one thing, but it can pay off to take that extra step to make sure your attire looks like it was made just for you. No matter your body type, avoid wearing clothes that are either too loose or too tight. When clothes fit you correctly, there is something about looking good that can give you that extra boost of confidence and a spring in your step.
- Do not over-think it: While you want to dress appropriately and be sure to wear something that fits you right, you also do not want to obsess too much. Again, your ideas and experience are the most important things you will bring to the table; your physical appearance is simply a vehicle to help spread that knowledge to others. Worry more about what you will say and how you will act rather than what you are wearing.
After the Conference
Many professional conferences and networking events are followed by non-official events and gatherings. For these events, the networking continues even while the atmosphere shifts somewhat. In most cases, the same rules and guidelines we have already suggested continue to apply.
In most of these cases, it is perfectly okay to loosen up and let down your guard a bit more than you would at an officially sanctioned event. Chances are you have surrounded yourself with people you feel somewhat comfortable around, and sometimes these types of gatherings are more social than professional.
But make no mistake, there is still a good chance you will be meeting people for the first time, so it pays to remain on top of your game. Just keep in mind the gravity of each given situation. While it is entirely acceptable to loosen up, you also do not want to go so far that you end up embarrassing yourself.
In the end, these after-conference social situations can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they can show your peers that you know how to handle yourself in all types of situations, and then can help separate you from the pack when it comes to hiring situations down the road. On the other, if you drink too much or use an inordinate amount of foul language after hours, it can make you look bad and turn off some who otherwise thought you were a professional.
The final bit of networking at conferences is one of the most important — maintaining the contacts you meet at the event. It would be a waste of all of the groundwork you laid to immediately lose contact with those you met and rubbed elbows with.
One easy way to keep in touch with those you meet at conferences is on social media. At the very least, become connections on LinkedIn and follow lots of people on Twitter. If you get to know someone even better, you may become friends on Facebook, follow them on Instagram or swap snap codes on Snapchat.
Social media may be the easiest way to keep in contact, but a more meaningful method is the occasional email or phone call. People tend to have varying preferences — some prefer to communicate via email, while some love chatting on the phone — so make sure you find out ways people would prefer to stay in contact.
In the beginning, it does not have to be anything major. A simple email acknowledging it was nice to meet someone can go a long way. As time passes, your conversations may evolve as you discover each other's interests and professional aspirations. As is the case with one-on-one conversations, try to keep maintaining contact as natural and organic as possible.
Attending a conference can be intimidating for newcomers, but the reality is they are a part of professional life in many different industries. If you are able to stay natural and not over-think it too much, the tips laid out here can help you handle your first networking events like a pro.