Conference Networking 101
Professional conferences provide opportunities to hear new ideas, share research, learn new information, develop future projects, and expand professional horizons. With so many professionals in one place at a given time, conferences provide unlimited opportunities to meet new colleagues and make new connections. When it comes to conference networking, a little preparation beforehand goes a long way!
1. Business Cards
If networking is your game, come prepared. Whether you already have professional business cards through your employer or decide to create your own, these handy little cards make it easy to share your contact information with others. A variety of on-line printing sites provide countless design options to fit your professional tone and style with budget-friendly pricing.
Business cards serve a variety of functions. First, they not only help you share your contact information with others when time is of the essence, but it also ensures that your information is accurate and easy to read. Even if networking isn't your goal, you might find that others are interested in networking with you and would like to exchange contact information. At large conferences, you are likely to visit the exhibit hall, where business cards come in handy to enter drawings and provide shipping addresses when making purchases.
Probably the biggest advantage of having business cards on hand is the convenience. Once you've spent time handwriting your professional contact information for new friends and contacts, obtaining business cards quickly becomes a priority.
2. Plan Ahead
Spend a little time reviewing the conference program in order to identify formal networking events and potential people that you would like to meet. This may include speakers following a presentation, companies located in the exhibit hall, and networking events hosted by the convention. Networking is both planned and coincidental! And even the best laid plans may not turn out the way you envision. But you have to start somewhere.
When attending a big conference, most attendees spend some time pouring over the conference planner - identifying sessions and events they don't want to miss. Networking planning is simply an extension of the conference planning you are already doing. As you find sessions, topics, and events that align with your own interests, research, and goals, spend a few extra minutes reading the speaker bio. Is this someone whose own research and interests align with your own? If so, make a little note to include networking in your schedule. Plan little pockets of time after sessions to introduce yourself. You may want to share your own interests and/or ask a question about their research or area of expertise. Keep in mind that conferences are busy places, so you'll likely only have a few minutes.
If making contact with a specific individual is of the upmost importance to you, reach out ahead of time to schedule a short meeting during the conference. Sometimes face-to-face conversations are much more productive and fruitful than those over the phone or through e-mail.
3. Identify Your Goals
In order to be a more effective networker, it's important to identify why networking is important to you. What are you hoping to accomplish by networking and what are your short and long-term networking goals? Identifying your goals, will help you organize your networking activities.
Your goals may involve sharing new research with relevant stakeholders, securing future speaking engagements, finding a new job, identifying future collaborators on specific projects, and/or marketing your products and services. Sometimes your goals may be confined to locating other individuals who are also confronting the same professional challenges that you are, such as writing and publishing a book or tackling issues related to a difficult project.
It's likely that your networking goals are not confined to a single project, topic, or area of interest. For instance, your primary goal may be to locate people that can help you disseminate information about a project you are currently working on. But another goal may be making connections that are important for a project in the earliest stages of development. It's okay to have multiple networking goals.
4. Take the First Step
When it comes to networking, don't hesitate to take the first step! By opening the door you never know what may transpire, either immediately or years down the road. But it's up to you to take the first step. Here's the thing to keep in mind...the first step isn't crossing the Grand Canyon. The first step is saying hello (though it may feel like you're crossing the Grand Canyon...at least until you get the hang of it!)
In the wisdom of Brené Brown, Dare Greatly! Your desired outcome, doesn't just fall in your lap (well sometimes it does, but that's pretty rare!) You have to take chances and put yourself out there, and sometimes those chances are outside of your comfort zone. But you will never know what might be if you don't take the first step.
5. Opportunities Are Everywhere Here's the crazy thing...networking happens everywhere and anywhere! It's not just confined to audience Q&A after a presentation, the conversation that takes place at a poster presentation, or the "networking" event the organization has planned. While those are all great opportunities for more structured networking, networking happens in the elevator, standing in line at the coffee shop, and on the sidewalk trying to figure out which way to head next.
Networking starts with you initiating that conversational interaction. While it may start with your comment to a fellow coffee customer on the virtues of securing that all important first cup of coffee in the morning, particularly before a conference starts, networking transpires as you and your new coffee pal start visiting about the conference.
6. Stay Organized
Staying organized makes a HUGE difference!
First, you want to make sure you have enough business cards with you and that they are easily accessible with minimal risk of losing, or worse, spilling your cards! Find a system that works for you, whether that's a dedicated pocket in your purse, work bag, badge holder, or shirt pocket.
Second, you'll want to decide where you will store the cards that you receive from other people. This might be the same location as your business cards or another spot that too, is accessible and secure. One option is a business card holder. In front are your business cards, ready to hand out, and cards you receive are in the back.
If you're more of an electronic person, consolidate information electronically at the end of the day or conference, whenever the moment is convenient. Unless of course, the person you are talking to is as tech savvy as you are. Then by all means, exchange information electronically.
Another challenge is making sure that you have enough cards for the duration of your conference or event without overburdening your system. One idea is to store your business card supply back at your hotel room or office, packing enough cards for your day or event. When you return to your room, reload new cards while removing those you've received. If the unfortunate were to occur and you lost your daily stash, the valuable contacts you have already made are safe and sound back in your hotel room or office.
7. Don't Be Afraid to Plant a Seed
When networking, don't be afraid to plant seeds. This goes back to knowing your networking goals. If your goal is to secure future speaking opportunities, don't hesitate to state your intentions. For example, "I look forward to scheduling a conference call to discuss future speaking opportunities with your company." You are simply sharing your goal in a professional manner, opening the door for future discussion. Neither you nor your contact have made any commitments. If you are thinking that a future collaboration opportunity might present itself down the road, you might state, "I'd love to stay in touch, possibly collaborating when the right project presents itself."
Making initial connections at conferences is only the first step. Once you recover from a conference, send a follow-up to your new contacts - doing so helps foster future communication. This can be done via e-mail or social networking sites like Linked-In or Research Gate.
When sending connection requests, include a short follow-up, such as, "it was nice to meet you last week at XYZ conference" and "I look forward to reading more about your research or work on...". When the right project comes along, don't hesitate to reach out to the appropriate contacts to follow-up and gauge more specific interest.
These are just a few suggestions to get you started. As you start attending more conferences and networking events, see what works for you. Make modifications as you go, building upon your success!