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7 Networking Tips to Make the Most of Conference Season

Conference season is here! The team at Leadership Inspirations is busy preparing to attend and present at several different educational conferences this spring (hope to see you at our CADA and AFLV West sessions). We love this time of year because conferences are great for professionals and students alike. These structured gatherings allow us to connect with people in our field, learn from our peers and experienced professionals, gather helpful resources, share ideas, and just have fun “out of the office”!

Regardless of your industry, conferences are an incredible time to network. Now, many of us have mixed feelings about networking. We know that it’s a necessity, but can feel like it’s more of a nuisance. That’s definitely not the kind of energy we want to bring to these interactions. In all honesty, we are the most successful at networking when we don’t think about it.

That being said, we thought about it (it’s our job to think about it). And we have more unconventional networking advice for you before you rally to pick up your name tag and program at registration.  

Have a Goal, Not a Plan

Networking is inherently something that is hard to prepare for. Mostly, because we can’t control other people. In this way, we might not be able to necessarily plan our whole experience, but we can certainly set goals to guide us through it. Why do we need goals, you say? Isn’t networking just stuffy socializing? These are valid questions.

To answer the first, it’s important to set goals for networking so that we can be intentional with our time and energy. Then we can make sure to reach out to people that we know who will also be attending to reconnect, we can help to connect people who we think should meet, we can make sure to attend sessions presented by leaders who might be able to help us solve challenges we are facing, and we can make a point to introduce ourselves to new people. To answer to the second, networking isn’t “stuffy” socializing, it’s “specific” socializing. And what I mean by that is the relationships we build should be mutually supportive and helpful. This does not mean that the relationships we build are transactional or exploitive. The support and help comes from creating authentic and interesting connections, not because we have a motive or something to get or gain. We can’t plan these kind of relationships, but goals help us to be intentional in the way that we cultivate them.

“Bob, It’s Time to Engage!”

I know so many people who pay money to attend conferences and then they don’t actually do anything while they are there. This seems like such a waste of time and energy and resources to me. Granted, as noted above, different people have different goals when it comes to conferencing so I can’t really comment on anyone else’s process. But, what I can do is tell you that I meet the most people and have the best experience when I work to be engaged and involved in whatever ways possible at each conference we visit – whether that be through exhibiting, presenting, attending sessions, meeting speakers, or participating in socials. Start with easy things that genuinely interest you, but also consider what things might be challenging for you or might push you outside of your comfort zone. Trying new things is a great way to meet new people!  

Break Free From the Pack

If you’re traveling with a group, get away from them. I mean it. We use our colleagues and friends as our biggest excuse when it comes to networking. They become a safety net for us to use in social situations that are new or unfamiliar. But, if we stick with the people we already know, we are seriously limiting our potential to meet and engage with new and interesting people. It makes sense that we would rely on people we know in these kinds of situations, but this “pack” mentality is actually what makes networking so intimidating. It’s much harder to approach a whole group of people than it is to reach out to one other person. So, branch out. You can reconnect with those people later and then introduce them to the new, cool people you’ve brought into your circle.

Do Yourself A Favor: Take Notes

Let’s be honest. Most of us, are “terrible with names”. This can certainly become a roadblock to networking successfully. I distinctly remember when people remember and use my name and I’m wildly impressed when this happens when I least expect it. That’s significant. So, do yourself a favor and take notes. Write down or keep record of the people that you meet, where they were from, what organization they were a part of, and what you talked about. Use this information to your advantage. People want to be remembered – it makes us feel important. To take this a step further, collect business cards or add people on LinkedIn – this intentionality makes it so much easier for you to get back in touch with these people. If this is a conference that you attend regularly, reach out to those people before the next gathering and make plans to connect or catch up.

You Can Sleep At Home

There ain’t no rest for you here. Believe me when I say that I know how exhausting these experiences can be. I am a proud introvert, and it takes a lot for me to keep up with the extraverts on my team when we are at conferences. Of course, I would never actually encourage anyone to forgo their self care for networking. But, it important to remember that it’s how we fill “down time” that will often make or break our networking success. If I’m hiding in the hotel room after sessions, then it’s harder for me to be invited to go line dancing with everyone. I have met some of my favorite people “after hours” and it’s because I made sure to take advantage of every invite and opportunity to participate that came my way. This is a great time to use your “pack” too – mine for sure makes forces me out more than I would alone – but I’m always happy I did.  Conferences are usually only a few days long, find a balance that works for you.  

You’re Not Selling Something

Even if you are. What I mean by this, is that most people don’t actually care about your product or service. They walk through the exhibit halls looking for free stuff and will avoid eye contact if it looks like you might try to pitch them something. I am guilty of this myself. But, while I may not be interested in what you are selling, I am interested in people. And I am much more easily “sold” on people. This means that even if I don’t need your embroidery service, if I’m sold on you, I will make sure to help connect you to other people who do need it. I thoroughly believe in the power of relationship building for any organizations purpose. It’s like Simon Sinek describes in his Golden Circle model. The best organizations sell their “why” not their “what”. More often than not, you as a person are an integral part of that “why”.

Less Follow Up, More Follow Through

This piece of advice is from our article 7 Networking Tips That Are More Helpful Than “Just Be Yourself”. But it’s included here as well because it is still SO IMPORTANT, and for some reason I have to keep saying it because people keep forgetting. We hear all the time how important it is to “follow up” with new contacts. What in the world does that even mean? Most of the time it’s an email saying something like, “It was nice to meet you”. Which is nice and all. But, to me, that’s comparable to running into an acquaintance from college or somewhere and saying, “It’s been forever, we should catch up sometime”. And then you both say, “We really should” and then you never do. An utterly useless pleasantry. Don’t reduce the people in your network to pleasantries. Follow through with them. This takes looking ahead and making a specific ask – Can we meet for coffee next week? I’d love to talk to you more about the project you’re working on. And then show up to coffee next week, with thoughtful questions or contributions about said project. Networking is a long term commitment. We don’t get to meet and then ask for favors. These favors come from the social capital we build with people over time by being timely, committed, responsible, thoughtful, and considerate. Do more of those things for the people you meet and the “networking” will happen for you.

I hope that these tips help to keep networking “real”. Networking does serve us a very specific purpose, but because of that we can sometimes lost sight of what it’s really about – bringing people into our lives. When can network effectively we give ourselves so many opportunities to create and build together, to grow and develop together, to be catalysts and change makers together. We hope we get the chance to meet you one day (maybe at a conference!) so that we can do these things with you too!  

*Leadership Lesson*

Setting your networking goals is as easy as 3,2,1. Before you head off to your next conference make sure to reflect on and write down the following:

3 – things you want to learn

2 – people you’d like to connect with

1 – question you’d like answered

Refer back to these goals as you plan your conference agenda. What sessions or speakers should you attend? What people do you need to make plans with? Who do you need to introduce yourself to?

You will leave your next conference feeling connected and accomplished when you can refer back to these notes at the end and actually see what you took away from your experience.

*Meet the Author*

Caelan Cooney is another Millennial who wants ‘to make an impact’, a self-proclaimed movie critic, avid explorer, lifelong learner, and Chapman University graduate.