I’ve attended my share of conferences over the years, and they generally all have their own unique vibe. As a translation professional, I joined colleagues for conferences in niche areas, to retain my accreditation and certifications. As a business owner, I attended industry events to network with the wider business world. And now, as an aspiring academic, I attend conferences to develop my skills as a scholar and gain insight into a new career path.
Like most introverts, my preference is to listen to interesting talks, events, or training. But I still do OK on the social front. Here are some things I do to manage the transition from knowledge worker to networker.
BEFORE THE CONFERENCE
1. Have a question. I always make a list of one or two key questions I’d like to explore during my time at a conference or event. Treating it like a fact-finding mission puts me in an open frame of mind. When I start to feel overwhelmed, the questions keep me curious and on track. And when I get tired and can’t remember why I ever thought leaving my house/office was a good idea, my questions reminds me why I want to be there.
2. Search social. I find and follow people who mention the event, and sometimes even strike up a conversation – I already know we’ve got a common interest. If things go well, I may arrange to meet for coffee in person at the event. If things don’t go well, I know to avoid them 😉
3. Search LinkedIn specifically for speakers or attendees I might like to meet, and see what else we might have in common. Maybe we went to the same uni, or worked for the same employer, or know the same people. If I find nothing, that tells me something in itself. This kind of research makes it much easier to walk into a room full of people I don’t know.
4. Consider listing the conference on social, for example as an event on LinkedIn or Facebook, if it’s not there already, and indicate that I’ll be attending. This is a great opener for other people to contact me. I could probably do this on other social networking sites too, but I like LinkedIn because the network is large, professionally oriented, and not industry specific.
5. Remember the people I know already. If someone in my network lives near the event, I’ll generally try to arrange to meet them for a coffee. This is especially useful when I’m travelling to a destination that I might not normally visit. I’ll also let co-workers, colleagues, suppliers or even clients know I’m attending too. This ticks three boxes: it lets people know I invest in my professional development; it gives them an opportunity to let me know if they’re attending themselves, or know others who are; and it’s an opportunity to deepen existing relationships.
6. Search Google Images for attendees, speakers or anyone else I might like to meet. This is good if a name sounds familiar, for example, but I’m not sure I’ve met them before. Doing this guarantees at least a few ‘familiar’ faces in the crowd.
7. Be aware of industry news and hot topics. Read relevant trade, association or academic journals, and do an online search. Formulate some ideas, opinions or questions of your own – you’ll learn a lot more and will have a ready source of conversation openers for those awkward moments over the buffet. By engaging in key ideas, you’re also doing the speakers and other experts a favour by giving them an opportunity to chime in, if they want.
8. Read up on the event exhibitors or sponsors. Don’t assume these folk are to be avoided just because they’re more explicit about their marketing efforts than you may be. Exhibitors can be a great source of industry information and may be potential employers or clients in their own right. Best of all, if things get really bad, you can engage them in conversation, safe in the knowledge that they have to be nice to you because they’re selling something 🙂
9. Make it easy for other people to find you. In the days and weeks before the event, share that you’re attending and post some great content. Chances are other attendees will be checking you out, so you may as well give them some good talking points for when you meet. Use the event’s hashtag (if it has one) and the location where the event is held, so people poking around on social can find you.
10. Rehearse, rehearse, rehearse. Think up conversation starters and graceful conversation closers. Have a few lines ready on things you’re involved with. If you’re looking for a job or new clients, be clear on how you’re going to talk about this. Be concise and to the point – it makes it easier for people to give you an answer. Finally, be enthusiastic. Save your tales of woe for another time.
11. Prepare to be sociable. Look up some recommended restaurants, coffee shops or casual lunch spots close to the event. Keep the number and address handy. If you meet a bunch of people you like, you have a good suggestion of where to meet, or can share a cab there at the end of a long day. If everyone is nasty, go by yourself as a consolation prize.
DURING THE CONFERENCE
12. Proactively schedule time-outs and wind-down activities, especially if the conference runs over a few days. I often fall into the trap of thinking I have to be on full throttle 100% of the time. But operating at that level for too long is a sure-fire way for me to burn out and miss out on the connections I really wanted to make. I know what it takes to ‘do me’, but I have to make an effort to make sure that happens. So I’ll take 30 minutes here and there to read the paper, enjoy a cuppa, digest my lunch properly, or head to a gym or swimming pool. These activities make all the difference to my energy levels, ensure I feel a lot better heading into the event each day, and shorten my recovery time post-conference.
13. Never, ever wear new shoes. Wearing new shoes to a conference is right up there on the pain stakes with childbirth – I’m not even joking. Yet I’ve found myself cursing and hobbling around conference venues ten minutes after registration more times than I care to remember. These days, I’d rather walk barefoot across a bed of rusty saws.
14. Take the time to follow up with people you spoke to, or wish you had spoken to. Otherwise, how is going to a conference any different to just following a bunch of strangers online but never really taking it any further? Connect with the people you meet on social, and make a note to touch base with them in the weeks and months following the event. Even better, send an email to thank someone for their advice, send them information you may have promised, or arrange to catch up after the conference.
15. Sit back and enjoy.