Love them or loathe them, conferences are a fixture in most industries. You may think that if you’re not presenting a poster, giving a talk, sitting on a panel, or actively on the job market, it’s OK to be a passive participant — or decline to attend altogether.
Not so. Attending important conferences in your field should be an essential element of your career strategy because each of these gatherings represents a golden opportunity to network.
Conferences provide opportunities to access and learn from decision-makers, appropriately promote yourself and your brand, and discover opportunities that can lead to employment, awards and other game-changing career experiences.
But what if you’re more comfortable taking your drink and hiding behind a potted plant than circulating and chatting at conference mixers? Whether you consider yourself an introvert, socially awkward, or just a networking newbie, fear not. Here are 15 tips to help you make the most of your next conference:
1. Don’t wing it. If you simply show up at a conference and participate in whatever events strike your fancy, you’re likely to miss the best networking opportunities. Before the conference, familiarize yourself with the program. Then start creating your schedule. Set aside time to attend not just talks and seminars, but also special events such as town halls and meet-and-greets.
2. Take advantage of the conference app. If the conference has an app, download it. These apps are often full of hidden treasures. Some list all attendees and their contact information, and allow you to send messages. Others allow you to tweet and follow other social media sites. Apps might also announce newly added events and activities, and provide transportation options.
3. Make appointments ahead of time. . . If you know you’d like to meet with fellow attendees, request appointments at least two to three weeks before the conference. They are busy too, so it’s wise to get on their calendars beforehand. Even if the person you want to meet is not on the program, it’s OK to reach out to ask if she will be attending and whether her schedule would allow a meeting.
4. . . . and keep them short. Ask for short appointments, such as a coffee meeting. The other person may not have time for a lunch or dinner, but he can probably squeeze in 15 minutes over a cup of joe. Be sure to leave yourself a buffer of time between your own appointments, just in case something special comes up, such as seeing Dr. God walking down the hall by herself.
5. Leverage the exhibit hall. Don’t just wander around aimlessly looking for free pens and cup holders. Instead, try to learn new things and make connections that will serve you well long after those free pens have run dry. Especially for large conferences where there may be hundreds of exhibitors, carefully study the list of exhibitors and map out where the ones you really want to visit are located.
6. Explore the poster farm. Take a careful look at what’s being presented and by whom. Not only will you get new ideas for research and learn about new trends in the field, but you will also have a fantastic networking opportunity.
7. Don’t eat alone. If you see someone from the meeting eating alone, don’t be afraid to ask, “Do you mind if I join you?” Chances are the other person will invite you to sit. And since you’re attending the same conference, you’ll automatically have something to talk about.
8. Let your business cards do double-duty. Bring business cards to the conference, and if you are giving a talk, sitting on a panel, or presenting a poster, put a sticker on the back of your card with the name, date, time, and location of your presentation. This way, whenever you hand out your card you can easily promote your talk.
9. Load up your nametag pouch. Your nametag holder — especially if it’s the large kind that comes with a lanyard — can be used for more than just your nametag. Put in a few business cards and a small notepad and attach a pen. This way you’ll always be prepared to exchange information with fellow attendees.
10. Be an early (and friendly) bird. Arrive early to talks and sit down near someone you don’t know. This is a great opportunity to network, especially for introverts. Introduce yourself, then reference the speaker and the topic as a way to get the conversation started. As soon as the speaker begins, you can whisper, “It was great to meet you. May I have your business card?” Now you’re done.
11. Always bring a great attitude. Making sure there’s a smile on your face can go a long way toward laying the foundations for productive relationships. No one wants to chat with someone who isn’t happy to be there, is looking at their shoes, or is reading a text while chatting. Show people you are serious about your craft and their craft by recognizing that in-person networking is a privilege and is enjoyable.
12. Use social media before, during and after the conference. Many last-minute changes to programs are promoted only via the conference app or on social media — so make sure you’re a fan. Twitter is especially useful because you can discover who the trendsetters and leaders in the community are. You can retweet their tweets to amplify your brand and send a private message on Twitter or even tweet to them publicly about their work to ask for an appointment.
13. Be a volunteer. Volunteering at a conference allows others to observe your dedication to your craft and the association, gives you easy access to networking opportunities, and opens doors to leadership experiences. If you’re volunteering at the registration desk or in a session room, you are perceived as the authority. Not only will people approach you to ask for help, you will have an immediate and natural way to strike up a conversation.
12. Even if you can’t attend, network from afar. If you just can’t make it to this year’s conference, there is still networking value. Follow the Twitter feed, and then reach out to participants you would have liked to meet. Email them to say you won’t be at the conference, but would like to explore the opportunity to partner. Ask for phone or Skype appointments following the conference.
13. Close the loop. If you just go to a conference and do nothing after it, you have (almost) completely wasted your time. The meeting is only the starting point. After everyone has returned home, it’s up to you to make sure you stay on your new contacts’ radars. Start by composing an email thanking each person for his or her time at the conference, recapping what you talked about, and suggesting a phone or Skype appointment to develop your partnership.
While “born connectors” might make networking look effortless, it isn’t. The more time and energy you put into making and developing career-enhancing relationships, the better your results will be. And who knows? Your greatest future success might be a direct result of networking at your next conference.
Alaina G. Levine is author of Networking for Nerds as well as a speaker, comedian, career consultant and writer. She is president of Quantum Success Solutions, which provides public speaking and leadership training. Follow her on Twitter @AlainaGLevine.