5 Tips for Successful Networking at Conferences
Conferences are an excellent place to meet people and make business connections. Yet the idea of networking at a large venue like a conference makes some people sweat. Often it seems people place undue stress on themselves to do it right and never show their flaws. If you approach it as a human being and not just a marketer, however, it becomes much easier.
The following five tips will help you make the most of a conference.
1. Go to learn.
This is a big one. Conferences of all kinds offer valuable information for attendees. If you are a writer at a writer’s conference, this fact is obvious. If you are an editor at a writer’s conference or business leaders conference and you’re attending because you want to meet new clients, it might not be as clear-cut.
Even if the topics aren’t directly applicable to the work you do, these conferences give you an opportunity to learn something new. You might be surprised by how much of the information applies to your own work and business.
More important is the attitude you carry. If you are there to learn, you will be engaged, ask good questions, and show respect to the presenters you are listening to. Attendees will notice you have more to offer than a business card.
2. Plan to ask a question in each presentation you attend.
One part of networking is making yourself visible. Asking questions is a great way to do that. Stand up if it’s a large room, give your name and occupation or the name of your company, and ask a relevant question. Listen to the answer.
To ask good questions, you have to be engaged in the presentation. Again, you are showing respect for the topic and the presenter, and you are demonstrating that you care about the same things the other attendees care about. You also show that you are a critical thinker, always a valued attribute.
3. Talk to the person sitting next to you in a session.
While you’re waiting for the next session to start, you may find yourself sitting quietly, elbow to elbow with a complete stranger. This is your chance to practice your networking. If you aren’t outgoing, you might not be used to starting conversations, but there are a few easy questions to ask to get the ball rolling. Start with hello, then follow up with a question about the other person:
- Are you having a good conference?
- Are you a writer/editor/businessperson also?
- What did you think of the keynote speaker?
- Are you from the area?
- Have you been to this conference before?
Now listen to the answer. If the person on one side of you doesn’t seem interested in talking, don’t get discouraged. Those are the rare ones. Try someone else. If you two have something in common and want to stay in touch, exchange business cards. After the conference you can send a brief email to reconnect.
4. Join others at lunchtime.
Scarier even than talking to the person next to you is walking up to a table of strangers and asking to sit with them. Nightmares from junior high may flash through your head. But conference organizers these days are very good at taking the pressure off. Some have conversation starters at the tables. Others have tables labeled with topics of interest so that you can locate like-minded people. Even if your conference does not have these things, a warm smile will usually result in a warm welcome from the people already at the table.
The conversation starters above apply here as well. The difference is that the conversation will last longer than the 5 to 10 minutes that you wait for the presenter to speak. So be prepared to talk a little about yourself — what you’re working on, what services you offer, what brought you to the conference.
If this part really makes you nervous, do a few warm-ups by yourself. Practice using your voice so that it works when you need it. An exercise I learned recently is repeating “minimal animal, minimal animal” and “unique New York, unique New York.” To say the phrases right, you have to open your mouth and project. You will feel silly the first time, but it works surprisingly well.
Again, if you meet someone you might be able to do business with, exchange cards and follow up with a brief email after the conference.
5. Wear an ice breaker.
Now we have discussed meeting people while attending a presentation or when sitting at lunch, but what about those in between times? What happens when you’re looking at exhibits or grabbing a muffin before the next session starts?
If you have been asking questions at each presentation and talking to your neighbors, people may approach you. Give them something to talk about. Wear a funny or notable tie or a memorable brooch. Add the title of your book and/or your occupation to your name tag. Wear a pin that says, “Ask me about my editing services.”
You don’t need to wander into the realm of “flare.” Keep it professional. But wearing something unusual can make it easier for someone to approach you, and everyone appreciates an “in” to striking up a conversation.
And that’s really all networking is — talking to people to learn about them and determine how you can help each other. If you talk to enough people, exchange cards with the ones you connect with, and follow up after the event, you are virtually guaranteed to grow your network.
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