Conferences are a buffet of professional promise, and with all the opportunities presented, it can be tempting to overindulge—whether in business cards or beers. But hitting a buffet with no game plan is an amateur move. One thing will blur into the next and you’ll be left unsure of what you experienced, with nothing to show but a hangover and an empty plate.
Consider a new strategy for your next conference. Rather than taking in as much as possible, take in as much as is meaningful. With this approach, you’ll leave the conference rejuvenated—armed with new knowledge you’ve retained and a handful of real connections you’ll remember. Your primary goal? Turn the attendees into your real-life LinkedIn network. The connections you make will last much longer than the buffet line.
1. Map out your meet-ups: Identify the people you’d like to meet early on. This is easiest when the conference shares an attendee list, less so when they don’t. You can always use social media to do the detective work. Look for the hashtag and see who’s talking. Reach out to introduce yourself and express interest in meeting them at the event. Make a list of your top connections, research their professional profiles, and make it a point to find them at the event.
Do the same with the speaker roster. Connect ahead of time with your favorites and make sure you attend their sessions. Stick around afterward and shake their hand. Make sure you give them lots of social love. If you can’t attend a certain session, ask the speaker for their notes or the opportunity to talk over a cup of coffee.
Conferences also offer great opportunities to strengthen existing connections. Perhaps a vendor or old client with whom you’d like to reconnect. Send them a message prior to the event and rekindle the professional relationship onsite.
2. Use social media to tell your story: Being sociable on social media helps build your conference network and broadcast your attendance at the event. However, no one expects you to single-handedly capture the entire conference. Some attendees feel pressured to tweet every speaker quote, backroom session, blurry stage photo, and breakfast bagel. This fuzzy rehash results in low engagement on social media, and some missed conference connections.
Instead, choose key moments, quotes, and photos that demonstrate what you are learning and better yet, what you are thinking. Treat each post as the beginning of a conversation. Then, invite fellow attendees to share their stories by mentioning them in your posts. Remember to use official conference hashtags—it increases the likelihood your tweet will be seen by attendees.
3. Be visible: In wild, unknown waters, every sailor looks for a lighthouse. Be the lighthouse at your conference. Become a friendly and familiar face in the crowd of strangers. You can achieve this through exposure, repetition, and a little bravery.
Exposure: Simply put, be seen at the conference. Attend the breakfasts, break-out sessions, and book signings. If you find an hour free, resist the urge to go back to the hotel room for a nap. Instead, treat the hallways and common space like your very own cocktail party and get to mingling. Your important people are out-and-about, not tucked under the covers watching TV.
Repetition: It might sound boring, but a conference uniform can actually catapult you to the spotlight. As GQ says, “Wear the same thing every day and you'll turn your clothes into an essential part of your personal brand.” Choose a color, clothing item—like a funky tie or a standout bag—or hairstyle to be the mainstay of your conference uniform.
Bravery: Short of being on stage, the quickest way to be seen by lots of attendees is to ask a question or tell an engaging story. This is especially effective during Q&A sessions where attendees get an opportunity with the microphone. Prepare your quip ahead of time by reading the session descriptions. Just make sure your story is relevant and your question wasn’t answered in the talk.
4. Can the cliques: Although you might be at the conference with coworkers, you don’t need to spend all of your time with them. Cliques can be intimidating and not very network-friendly. You’ll meet more of your important people by flying solo. It’s more approachable for them and it’s easier for you to maneuver without six other people in tow.
This goes for digital cliques too—meaning the hundreds of emails on your phone. Spend the conference heads down in your iPhone and you’ll miss connections happening around you. Set designated times to check your work email. Use these breaks as opportunities to walk around the neighborhood or grab a coffee nearby.
5. Strictly business is strictly boring: Treat conference attendees the way you like to be treated, like an interesting human being. Once you’ve made a connection, take time to get to know the person before you dig into their product or profession. Better yet, leave as much business talk as you can until after the conference. In fact, it’s the perfect reason to follow-up.
Networking 101 tells us to pay a compliment, find common ground, and ask questions to get the conversation started. If you have difficulty finding common interests, look no further than the conference or city you are in. Remember, the best conversationalists are good listeners. Let your contact do the talking while you learn more about them.
6. Be your best self: The old adage, ‘You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” holds true for conference impressions too. Leave attendees with the image of you as a capable, interesting, and passionate professional by being your best self for the entire conference.
A few tips for holding your own at events:
Be “there: As fun as a wild, drunken night might be in a new city, save those nights for close friends, not people you are trying to impress. A good rule for dinners is one drink before, one drink during, and water for the rest of the night. At happy hour, stick to a two drink max—or less if that’s better for you.
Stay well: You’ll want to be alert and energetic for the whole event. Aim to get to bed early each night so that you have the stamina to get through each day. Avoid headaches by drinking lots of water. In fact, pack a reusable water bottle and keep it full. Wash your hands often to avoid catching a cold.
Avoid crashes: Coffee and sugar are conference circuit constants. However, these popular pick-me-ups are unstable sources of energy. After a few hours, you’ll crash, needing more coffee and sugar. Each refill delivers a diminishing return on energy. Avoid this cycle by drinking your normal volume of coffee and avoiding sugar. When energy is needed, try one of these alternatives: go for a walk, do jumping jacks in the bathroom, eat raw vegetables or fruit, or drink green tea.
7. Follow up in a memorable way: You’ve worked hard, made a good impression, and closed the conference with panache. Now, follow up to keep the momentum going. Send a personalized note to important contacts within one week of the event. Or skip the email, and send a personalized note on LinkedIn with a request to connect. If your contact is local and it makes sense for both of you—ask them for coffee.
Another way to extend momentum is to create an asset other conference attendees find valuable. While your post-conference brain is buzzing, write a summary blog post or create a SlideShare about what you learned. Then share your assets with your new connections.
These tips should help you turn conferences into rewarding experiences both personally and professionally. I’d love to hear how you use these tips. Let me know which conferences you are attending this year, and let’s connect.
Chelsea Larsson is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. She believes any problem can be solved with a pen, paper, and Pimm's cup. Find her on Twitter: @ChelseaLarsson.