This comprehensive conference-networking guide will help you prep, practice and pack for success, reach out with purpose and confidence, capitalize on connections, and turn all those new leads into long-term connections.
Let’s face it, unless you’re a charismatic social butterfly, professional networking likely comes as a challenge for you and networking at a professional conference can be more than intimidating - it can be downright formidable. As much as we may dread it, building and nurturing our professional relationships has a significant impact on our long-term career success. To help you navigate the rough waters of conference-networking, I’ve created a comprehensive guide to prepare you for the upcoming conference, help you pack for success, and create meaningful connections with the peers you meet.
- Before -
Learn the Format
Just as you would be strategic about setting up a business profile for a new online networking platform, so try to set aside some time to prep for your next tech conference. In the weeks before, you can utilize the conference’s website to help you learn as much as you can to navigate and connect with peers efficiently and effectively once you’re there.
It helps give you an edge to read up on the history of the conference and the city. For instance, ask yourself: What groundbreaking events have happened here? What have other tech professionals written about the conference? Who started it originally? Have famous tech leaders attended in the past? What is the city known for and why is the event held there? Trivia like this gives you good fodder for conversations when you get to the event, and also helps you get your bearings about the tone and style of the environment you’ll encounter.
Understand the Audience
Set yourself up for success by following the conference’s feeds for news about events and featured guests. Pore over the roster of presenters, exhibitors, and attendees and start to narrow down the potential connections you’d like to make. You can examine what their motives are for attending the conference so that you can forge a mutually beneficial connection. Helpful questions to start with include: Are they presenting about a new trend or technology? What are their topics of interest? What work have they published in order to merit presenting at the event? Many people feel better about their professional connections when the relationship is built on shared interests and trust. Remember that the end goal isn’t to have a large network of surface connections, but to build relationships that have depth and meaning. By understanding what your audience is looking for, interested in, and motivated by, you can better understand how you can contribute value to the relationship.
I highly recommend learning the schedule of key events and the primary vehicles for mingling with other attendees - such as Q&A sessions, panels, or hosted dinners and events. Remember to set core objectives for your conference experience, whether it be speaking with leaders in a certain field of interest, connecting personally with a specific company, or building on your database of potential supporters of your company or business idea. With these objectives set, you can begin to build your itinerary and a prioritized wish list of events and meetings which will help you stay focused during the event.
Making note of the big headliner seminars is important, but don’t forget about the smaller mixers, cocktail hours and brunches where meaningful discussions often take place. Try and make note of the times during the event that offer periods for rest and rejuvenation, as well the times when being at the ‘center of it all’ is crucial. This allows you to keep your energy up without missing out on the action.
Now that you know which seminars you’re interested in and who you’d like to connect with, you can start registering in advance for the appropriate events, mixers, etc. which will best position you to ‘rub elbows’ with key individuals. Start with your top five or ten guests or presenters, and consider sending personalized emails to introduce yourself and potentially set an appointment to meet. As the conference approaches, it also helps to follow-up with individuals who respond in order to confirm dates & times of your upcoming meetings. This will help you nail down your itinerary and demonstrate that you’re genuinely interested spending some face-time with potential new affiliates.
Memorize the Floor Plan
During the conference, you’re likely to feel more confident if you know where everything is. So try and flag the locations of main halls for important seminars, key areas where people might congregate between events, and where the restaurants and business lounges are for luncheons or relaxed socializing. You can even trace the path from one event on your list to the next and to reduce time and energy by mapping out the most direct routes. You may also want to study area maps and plan your transportation routes to and from your hotel.
Create your Itinerary
Now that you’ve armed yourself with knowledge of the layout, schedules of key events, and set a few of your own appointments, you can plan each day of the conference and give yourself the best chance for success. Many conferences release an app to help attendees, but if you prefer your own calendar reminders or the event you’re attending doesn’t provide an app, then use the method that works best for you. Just remember to set realistic goals for yourself and give yourself time for casual, organic networking opportunities and for logistical considerations like walking from one end of the expo to the other or an appointment running long.
Complete your Profile
After all that preparation, you’ll likely have a deep understanding of the conference layout, the event timelines, and the presenters. It’s time now to familiarize yourself with the codes of conduct and begin honing your profile to best represent yourself and demonstrate your value to your potential affiliates. Keep in mind that the sustainability of your connections depends on you both benefiting and drawing value from the relationship.
You can use the tools offered by the conference website to make your plans for attendance known online. Choose whether you prefer to register and upload your press kit, profile or company information to the website, or download the conference app to make your schedule public to other guests. Consider sharing your RSVP on Experts Exchange, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other online networks to broadcast your attendance. It’s also great to reach out to the friends and members of your online network who will be attending so you can make plans to meet up for lunch or dinner; nurturing the connections you already have will make you feel more comfortable and confident at the conference, and further reinforce your current network. Additionally, your friends’ acquaintances could potentially help you build on your own network, as personal recommendations and endorsement have a more powerful impact on people’s decision to connect with you.
Pack Strategically to Make a Strong Impression
Consider a wardrobe that is appropriate (for casual, cocktail, and business settings), comfortable, but also memorable and put together. Don’t be afraid to stand out and show your personality with a Chewbacca tie, neon-green button-down, or glow-in-the-dark business cards. Aside from business cards, consider other shareable assets like special promotional coupons or swag items like t-shirts or stickers that you can give to new acquaintances. Pack an extra power strip, pens and a recording device; not only will they ensure that you’re prepared for anything, but sharing props like these could help turn strangers in the lobby into new friends.
Study your Body Language
It’s a hard thing to watch yourself speak to an audience or have a conversation with someone, but taking a good look in the mirror and practicing positive non-verbal communication will ensure you don’t unintentionally put someone off. I recommend making note of your stance, posture, body language and facial expressions, and evaluate whether they support and encourage social interaction, or if they’re working against you by making you appear closed-off, distracted, or overbearing. Positive nonverbal communication includes standing with arms uncrossed, maintaining eye contact, smiling, and generally expressing interest in the other person while they’re talking. Mirroring your body language to your conversation partner also helps them feel more comfortable and more likely to trust you. Furthermore, avoiding yawning, leaning against tables or walls, or turning your shoulders and chest away from others as you speak to them are common mistakes that you can avoid with just a little pre-conference practice.
Customize your Content
To ensure your conversations go smoothly and accomplish your core objectives, try preparing a number of poignant, relevant questions tailored to your target contacts. Allow yourself to reword them in different ways to avoid sounding too canned or over-rehearsed. This is also a good time to practice in the mirror or record yourself providing informed answers about your areas of interest and a concise but engaging elevator pitch about you or your company. You want to exude confidence and poise with your body language, so keep the tips outlined above in the front of your mind during practice. It also helps to memorize a few favorite fallback methods for starting meaningful conversations, just in case. Don’t forget that your preparation is intended to allow you to remain relaxed and confident with both peers and leaders, but a genuine connection will leave a positive lasting impression for both parties.
Download Conference Apps
Many tech conferences offer mobile applications to help you orient, navigate, plan and network. Here are a few top conference apps to streamline your conference experience:
Join the “SXSocial” network to connect with other attendees. Explore what’s on at SXSW, watch videos and listen to tracks. Create, sync and share your schedule across multiple devices.
Check into various locations at the conference to earn prizes. Quickly share contact information with others at the conference. Create and sync your schedule across multiple devices.
Watch live stream video of conference sessions if you can’t attend. Scan badges using your NFC device and add notes for new contacts. View I/O content from previous years.
Find your way around the trade show venue as well as the hosting cities. Find and network with other conference attendees. Create and sync your schedule across multiple devices.
- During -
Finally you’ve arrived at your event. When seeking out conversations with key presenters and contacts remember to aim for quality conversations rather than “spamming” yourself through a high quantity of rehearsed and ungenuine conversations. Remember to lead on your research and preparation by practicing positive body language, discussing shared interests with your new contacts, and demonstrating your value as a professional affiliate.
There will be plenty of distractions at all times during the event, so keep your itinerary and priorities clear in your mind in order to stay focused remain fully in the moment. Immersing yourself in what’s happening right now helps you identify insightful questions or critical comments about key presentations or events so that you can stand out to the presenter or other attendees when you talk to him or her later.
As casual conversations develop with others in between events, try to remain alert and enthusiastic as a listener and conversationalist. If you are distracted because you are short on time or need a break, you can politely excuse yourself and ask to meet later and talk some more.
Frequently Ask Questions
Show your sincerity by being curious, asking relevant questions and actively listening. This allows you to tailor your responses to the unique needs of others and demonstrate that you’re genuinely engaged in the conversation. Try to enjoy yourself and let conversation flow naturally and organically rather than being too calculating or strictly-business as you can come off as untrustworthy or colorless.
Be Realistic and Respectful
You can show your respect for presenters’ time by keeping your comments pointed and succinct and then exchange business cards and make plans to talk further. Remember that each contact is an opportunity for learning and discovery, so try to be open and patient with individuals that don’t necessarily fall on your target list.
Use your Analytics
Since you’ll be talking to so many different people, learn everything you can from your interactions. For instance: Try taking notes on business cards about topics to follow up with; observing which of your comments and topics generates the most positive engagement in conversations; and tailoring your future interactions accordingly. This allows you to remain agile and adaptable making your continued efforts more worthwhile.
Take the Next Step
Translate your in-person networking efforts to online connections. While at the conference (or before), blog about a seminar you are attending; tweet about an interesting insight a presenter made; subscribe to an attending influencer’s feed.
As you make in-person connections with others, tag, follow, friend, and message them, as appropriate (asking for permission first if that seems best), to open the doors for future conversations. Don’t be afraid to play match-maker and introduce your new acquaintances to others in their field of interest (online or in person), or suggest moving engaging conversations to lunch or coffee and further solidify new relationships.
- After -
Keep your Status Active
Post-event you probably have a heap of new contacts’ business cards, notes, flyers, downloads, pamphlets, and leads from the conference. Putting these to good use is a critical step in acquiring the return on your investment.
Do your Filing
It’s crucial to nurture the new ties you’ve made by following up while you’re still fresh in their minds. I recommend that you do not delay on the tedious yet important work of inputting business card information to your device, adding contacts to your online networks, creating calendar reminders about upcoming events, or sending any promised follow-up emails to new contacts. Doing so demonstrates your commitment to the new relationship and gives you both the best chance of a sustainable professional connection.
For your key contacts, try to keep the top-of-mind awareness you generated at the conference by creating your own long-term conference networking strategy.
First, send a personalized follow-up email right after the event. You want to jog the contact’s memory about their meeting with you and the conversation you shared. Consider a few of these tips: Express gratitude for an insight he or she offered, provide some kind of meaningful follow-up tidbit that the contact will appreciate (such as a link to a relevant article, referral to a friend in their field) or remind his/her about an event you mentioned at the conference.
Anytime it seems natural, try to continue engaging with that contact through online professional and social networking. You may even want to set a calendar reminder to get in touch again in a month or two, whether before another conference or in advance of any events your contact is interested in, or before new developments or launches in your business or area of expertise.
Keep the Momentum Going
Although the conference is now over, there’s still a lot of work you can do to nurture your new connections. Follow through on your investment of attending the conference by keeping conversations going and continuing to engage with your new affiliates and existing contacts.
Stay on your New Acquaintances’ Radars:
Keep Presenters and Companies of Interest from the Conference at the Top of your Mind:
- Publish content on respected websites and share your content across all social and professional networking channels
- Blog on your personal website or try out guest-blogging for other tech news organizations
- Contribute insights and solutions to highly reputed tech-help sites and communities
- Follow key experts or niche topic feeds on tech networking sites like LinkedIn, Quora, and Experts Exchange
- Attend webinars, watch videos and read articles created by presenters or key acquaintances made at the conference
- Comment, “like” and otherwise supporting their efforts in social and professional networks
Professional networking in itself is a time consuming, but extremely valuable practice that can make the difference between achieving long-term career success and falling short of the dreams and goals you set for yourself. Whether you have an upcoming conference to attend, or you simply want to get better at networking in all settings, the skills you acquire from this guide will help you better prepare for your networking opportunities, conduct memorable and meaningful interactions, and follow-through as though you’re a networking pro. Remember that these connections should be treated with the care and sincerity of personal friendships, and some of the most valuable, long-lasting connections end up being both. Happy networking!
I’d love to hear your feedback on my article, and any tips you have for creating and maintaining sound professional connections. Feel free to comment below. Thanks for reading!