Why is it some people are able to land the best jobs, produce stellar sales results, secure the best deals, and are able to gain access to people/places/things the average person simply cannot? The answer: it’s who they know and their ability to connect with those they don’t. Finding and getting to know those people doesn’t just magically happen without some effort.
Networking can open the door to opportunities not accessible without putting one’s self out there. Conferences, whether large or small, present a great opportunity for anyone to meet new people and expand their network professionally.
Many people are reluctant to engage in networking at conferences, tradeshows, or other professional gatherings and it’s easy to understand why. Networking in any situation, whether professional or personal, opens the door to facing individual personal judgment and even flat-out rejection. But professional networking skills are important for any professional. We sat down with some networking pros to get their tried and true methods and suggested tools of the trade so anyone can network at a conference like a pro.
Pro Conference Networking 101: Develop a Game Plan
Long before you take your seat or walk the floor of the conference you’re attending, you should develop your game plan for getting the most out of your time there. Ask yourself the following:
◊ What do you want to take away from the experience?
◊ Which sessions do you want to attend?
◊ Are there special events or gatherings I want to attend? (VIP & wrap parties, dinners, meet-ups, etc.)
◊ Who are the key people, vendors, or other businesses I’d like to connect with?
◊ Do I plan to contribute by being a speaker, conducting a session, working at the company booth, or volunteering?
Jot down this information and align that to the schedule of the conference and your personal schedule. Make sure to include time for travel, completing regular work, and of course personal breaks. Notate any time blocks that you have available for meeting with people during conference scheduled networking sessions, social activities, or other open blocks of time. Share with your social network (LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, etc.) that you’ll be attending.
Where appropriate, send a group/private (BCC) email to your contacts that may also be attending. Make it known you’d like to connect and make it easy for them to do so by providing a link to your calendar scheduling tool. No tool? No problem. The tech tools listed below has a few options for you to consider. Get your schedule in order and have your game plan in place in advance.
If it’s a complete stranger you’re trying to connect with, break the ice FIRST before the conference and lead with value for their time. A first face-to-face meeting is not appropriate for coffee/lunch/dinner, etc. with someone who doesn’t know you. Leverage social and email to get a dialogue going prior to the conference. You’re more likely to secure time with them later while at the conference if you assure them you only want a minute or two to introduce yourself in-person since you’ll both be attending.
Networking Tools of the Trade
Networking has become far easier (or more complicated, depending on how you look at it) with tech and non-tech tools. Nowadays you can get by with as a little as your phone or mobile device and still be able to network like a seasoned pro. But experienced networkers know that leveraging certain tools can make the whole business easier and a lot less stressful–which is especially important if things don’t go as planned (and often times, they don’t.)
◊ Zapier – this app’s sole purpose is to integrate all of your other apps so they’ll work together beautifully–allowing you to automate workflows & routine tasks. If there’s any one tool you should already be using to make your life easier, this is it
◊ Plan – this handy tool organizes projects & tools (email, calendar, tasks, etc.) for your workday acting as a “work concierge” (of sorts) so you can get spend more time doing actual work and less time managing the process. (Yay productivity!) This tool is invaluable for not only getting organized prior to the conference, but also remaining effective while there. Because nobody likes to retreat to their room to do hours of work later or play catch-up on personal time
◊ Conference Specific App – Many conferences have an app that can be downloaded prior to the conference that include all the pertinent details for attendees–sessions, maps, speaker information, & more. If the conference doesn’t have it’s own app, you can use Google Trips or TripIt to get your travel plans/schedule in order
◊ Scheduling Apps – there are a number of great options here that you can use to make scheduling networking sessions and other formal or informal gatherings a breeze. Some of our pro’s favorites include Calendy and Pick
Things happen! Make sure to have a “Plan B” figured out should something not go as originally planned. Being prepared means more time engaged in your experience and less time scrambling and stressing when your plan is forced to change on the fly.
For Connecting on the Go
◊ VCF Card (Vcard) – variant call format cards are recognized by almost any mobile phone and email service making them a preferred option for sharing contact information about you. We recommend having two versions that you can share–one version that includes the bare essentials for reaching you (name, phone number, email address, company, title, & LinkedIn profile) and a second that includes more personal details for reaching you. This includes all of the info listed in the first version plus: personal email address, social network info, instant messaging, personal website, & a notes section. The notes section is where the person who you’re sharing your Vcard with can fill out additional details on where they met you, what they should talk to you about, & other things to remember. If you don’t have a Vcard, create one!
◊ Business Card Reader – If you’ve ever had to juggle multiple business cards & find yourself wondering what to do with them (aside from typing all the info in–nobody has time for that!) try an app like ABBYY Business Card Reader or CamCard. Both use image recognition technology to scan, save, and share contact info.
◊ VPN – Ask any Chief Security Officer the one thing they wish more people had and they’d likely tell you a VPN, or virtual private network. Public Wi-Fi makes your personal information on your mobile devices vulnerable to hackers and security attacks. Passwords, credit card info, etc. Any information saved on your phone, laptop, tablets, (including on browsers), etc. is at risk! A VPN will protect you.
About.me allows you to turn a personal webpage into a shareable electronic business card via their app and lets users share any combo of info from their about.me page so you have more control of what to send. Having a personal webpage is not only professional and in the case of About.me, it can help you be that much more efficient when networking.
◊ Backpack | Satchel – They’re not just for kids & the college crowd. Many professionals use backpacks to stow-away they tech gadgets and have a place for other personal effects. Overflowing pockets and purses look sloppy. Pick a fashionable bag to store your stuff, conference materials, and swag
◊ Breath Mints – Bad breath is well, bad. Nothing kills a convo faster than bad breath. Come well-stocked so you can easily offer them to others who may need one as well & breathe easier knowing your mouth scent is in check
◊ Moleskin – The du jour paper place for jotting down anything. Tech may be convenient & fast, but if it fails you better have other means to capture info and a Moleskin is just that
◊ Meds | Tissues | Eye Drops – You won’t be focused or able to tolerate sitting through that intensive training session or key note when you’re in need of personal care items to remedy what’s causing you discomfort. Pack some & keep them in your backpack or satchel–NOT the hotel room where they won’t be easily accessible
◊ Hand Sanitizer – Germs are everywhere and sinks are not. Never face a stream of handshakes and pubic spaces without an on-the-go germ killer for your hands. Antimicrobial are best and if there’s some form of a moisturizing agent in it, all the better because the agents used to kill germs in sanitizers are often drying
◊ Backup Battery | Power Banks – Don’t let a dead laptop or phone battery slow your roll. Power banks are cheap and provide a convenient way to recharge when on the go.
Make sure to have contact info on your backpack | satchel or a tracking device like Tile, in case you & it are separated. Use a Sharpie to write contact info on your backup battery | power bank, and Moleskin so if found, you have a chance of getting it returned to you.
Easing into Introductions at Conferences
Now that you have your plan in place and tools in order, it’s time to chat people up and network. It’s important to remember that everyone else there is in the same boat as you. Even the most seemingly outgoing people can get nervous when meeting new people.
Here are some great ways to break the ice:
◊ What interested you in this conference?
◊ What are you hoping to get out of this conference?
◊ What sessions | speakers are you looking forward to?
◊ Where are you from?
◊ What are you most excited about at the moment?
◊ Any big challenges coming down the line for you?
◊ What’s your story?
Nobody likes to be grilled. Keep questions open-ended and learn when it’s time to exit the conversation. Having an exit strategy for politely excusing yourself helps. Don’t hover if you want to chat with a particular person and be open to chatting up anyone–you never know where the convo might go or who they may know as well. Networking pros listen more than they speak! This alone can help you excel when it comes to networking as most people listen to respond and not to understand.
The Art of the Follow-up
Now that you’ve met that new person and (hopefully) exchanged contact information, don’t forget to follow-up right away by sending the person an email and connecting with them on LinkedIn. If they are a new connection, arrange for a follow-up call or video chat and see if they’re receptive. The important thing is to continue to nurture any budding relationship because like plants, without tending to, they won’t flourish. Once you’ve established the relationship, periodically check-in with your network connections every so many months.
Following up is where most people fall short. There are apps that can help you with this! For the business side of matters, there’s Cloze and Etch. And for a straight-forward app that reminds you to keep in touch with people, there’s Bond and Ryze. Email and social are great ways to keep people informed about you, but nothing beats a “real” interaction to keep your relationships going long after the initial introductions at the conference.
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