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With conference season upon us, it’s a good time to revisit our networking skills to make the most out of events.
Networking, after all, can be daunting, especially at a conference where you’re surrounded by hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of professionals who seem like they’ve trained for this their entire career. To help, we spoke with Derek Plewes, Career Success Manager at BrainStation and got his top tips for networking at conferences.
Start by Making a Plan
It’s all too easy to attend a conference, hang in the background, and not get much out of it. The best way to avoid this is to be prepared ahead of time.
Do your research, know who the keynote speakers are, when they’re speaking, and what other talks or workshops you would like to attend.
“Focus on research and self-awareness,” says Plewes. “Gaining a thorough understanding of what key companies, speakers, and topics will be featured will help you make the most of the experience. It also helps to generate conversation with new contacts if you’re aware of everything going on at the conference.”
Make a schedule in advance, being careful to include the dinners and extra activities that are happening each day. These social events are a great opportunity to meet people in a more natural environment.
Set Measurable Goals
One way to ensure that you don’t take a backseat is to set measurable goals for yourself.
“Set goals. It’s easy to be passive and not get much out of an event if you don’t have a clear purpose heading into it,” explains Plewes.
And the goals don’t have to be lofty, in fact, the more attainable the better. You’re more likely to feel confident and inspired to meet a realistic goal like “collect 10 business cards from potential project collaborators” than one that’s too far fetched, for example, “find someone to invest in my business idea.”
Conferences are all about planting the seed – making a connection with someone that can be built upon afterward.
Brainstorm Conversation Starters
It sounds cheesy, but having questions and conversation starters ready will spark more interesting connections.
“I’d always suggest preparing a few unique questions before an event,” says Plewes. “Get people talking about what excites them. Because of the number of times people at conferences get asked ‘what do you do?’ that conversation turns into an automatic response rather than an engaging exchange.”
Instead of the standard ‘where are you from?’ question, branch out by diving right into interesting topics. Here are some of Plewes’ go-to conversation starters:
- What exciting projects are you working on right now?
“This is a more interesting way of finding out what they do, while inviting them to open up the conversation beyond simply stating their job title.”
- What do you think are the biggest challenges facing our industry?
“Get people’s opinions on macro-level issues facing your industry. They’re likely to offer insight that will start a meaningful conversation.”
- Have you always worked in this field?
“Many people have a varied background,” explains Plewes. “Ask them about their career path and previous experience and you might find that you have more common ground.”
Follow-up and Follow Through
A large part of having a successful conference experience depends on what steps you take once the event is over. A crucial step is to send follow-up emails to new contacts, including a specific detail from your conversation so that you stand out from the crowd.
“Follow-ups are a simple tactic, and yet so many people forget about them,” says Plewes. “Some people take a few notes on the back of business cards, on their phone, or in a small notebook so that it’s easier to recall the details of the conversation. These small efforts go a really long way.”
In addition, make sure that if you offered to help someone, you follow through on that promise. People often get caught up in networking for personal gain, but ensuring your connections get value out of your relationship is equally important.
Put Yourself Out There
Finally, remember that one conference may not give you everything you need. It may take a few before you get comfortable and have mastered getting the most out of the experience.
“Conferences are one of the most valuable ways to network because there is no other setting that concentrates like-minded people in the same field into one place,” says Plewes. “They also dramatically increase the number of face-to-face interactions you have. Strategically putting yourself in the position to have these conversations ultimately gives you the opportunity to develop stronger relationships.”