Many of us attend conferences for continuing education, but these can be great networking opportunities also if we have the right mindset.
Approaching new people can be difficult because of the obstacles we put in front of ourselves as well as those innate to a conference setting. As a result, you sometimes leave events without making meaningful contacts.
Until people are given permission to meet others, most feel self-conscious and stay within their comfort zones. Ideally, every conference should begin with intentional networking events, like my BizTalk Blender®, that encourage attendees to meet new people. Unfortunately, they don’t and until these icebreaker events become a standard, attendees must take initiative.
Starting Out Right
Many conferences, trade shows, and other events start with a meal, usually breakfast. Get down to breakfast early so you can scope it out. Find a table where there are people you don’t know. Ask if you can join them. I usually do this before I get my food. I set my bag on the chair, go get my food and come back and join the conversation. Don’t sit by yourself hoping someone will come to sit with you. Find a table that has happy people who are talking and join them.
If you meet a few people right off the bat it makes it easier and you will see them again during the day and continue the conversation. Whether you’re shy or outgoing, figuring out how to meet people in a crowded room can be difficult. Because it can be uncomfortable, many people will stay in tight-knit groups with those they know. Breaking into those tight-knit groups can be tough. Lingering on the outskirts is not good either. Here are some ideas to make it easier for you to connect with those you don’t know.
- Get Connected: Many conferences and trade shows now have an app with a list of attendees, speakers, and sponsors. If that is the case, review the list and connect in the app and over social media before arriving. In some cases, you might want to have a phone conversation in advance but be sure to meet during the event.
- First Timer: If you are attending an event for the first time, ask the conference organizers if they have a program for first-timers. Some provide a special badge for newbies, prompting others to approach and welcome them. You can also ask if they can start you off by making an introduction to someone who knows the ropes.
- Connect with speakers ahead of time: Research them and find them on social media. Send a personal note explaining that you will be at the conference and look forward to hearing them speak. Ask them if they will have time to meet. If not, no worries, be sure to say hello to them before or after their presentation. Then follow-up with a nice note. You’ll be surprised how effective this gesture can be. Developing relationships with speakers can provide you with resources and potential referral opportunities.
- Challenge yourself: Walk up to someone standing solo and introduce yourself. If they are standing alone, they may be very relieved to have someone to talk to. Invite them to go with you to meet others.
- Be prepared: Determine your goals. Why are you attending? What kind of people do you want to meet? Are you looking for sales, business referrals, or a mentor? Clearly defining your objective will make it easier to find the right people.
- Meet New People: Attending with a group provides security, but it also can be a hindrance. If you do go with a group, set goals and create a supportive outreach team beforehand. Get together for breakfast, but disperse during lunch, and meet up again for drinks later. There’s no need to be split the entire time, but utilize the conference time to meet new people. Once you’ve met some new people, you can make great connections for them by introducing them to your colleagues.
- Follow the hashtag: Most events use a hashtag and it makes it really easy to meet people online. Follow the hashtag and interact with others who are posting about the conference. Comments are the best. When you comment on someone’s post they notice it and are more likely to connect with you. LinkedIn and Twitter are my favorites for most events but many are using Instagram now too. Of course, you can post about the event, but make sure it is interesting and engaging, not just announcing that you will be there. When you make friends online and have meaningful conversations there it’s very fun to meet in person.
Of course, you should say hello to old friends and connect with current customers. That’s important too. But you can help them by introducing them to the new people you meet who might be a resource for them or their next client.
Becoming a Natural
How do you become someone who effortlessly connects with others? A trick is to not just approach people but to make yourself approachable as well. There is nothing more beneficial than a smile and eye contact. A positive disposition is simple, and it makes people want to meet you.
Many conferences supply lanyards with a name badge which sits right about your midsection —not prime placement for reading names. Bring your own name badge and place it on your right shoulder, when people can easily see your name it makes you more accessible. You can get magnetic name badges with your logo for $10 or less.
When approaching someone, look them in the eyes, smile, and make a connection. Once you are in a conversation, relate to the person you are talking with by listening. Find things you have in common. If you show interest in people, they will want to continue to talk to you. You have the opportunity to learn. If you want to steer the conversation in a certain direction, ask good questions. You will be more memorable if you listen, smile and pay attention than if you do all the talking. If it seems appropriate, get a photo of the two of you and post it on social media and of course tag your new friend.
Do not try to sell at the event during your first conversation. If a business interaction sounds promising, arrange a future time to discuss when you will have their undivided attention. Build relationships and be engaging so they will want to continue the conversation in the future.
What you do after the conference, trade show or event is just as important as what you do during. Schedule time to do the follow-up before you leave for the conference. Follow up with each person that you met because you never know what great things may come. Social media makes it easy. Get connected and interact with their posts. Some connections will not result in anything, but many will be great connectors, collaborators, referral sources and clients. Whether by phone, email, lunch or social media—make it happen. Continue to build the relationship and find a way to help your new connection before you ask for anything. It can be as simple as sharing a resource, recommending a book or making an introduction. Learn about them and give them the opportunity to know you and develop a relationship of trust.