How to Network at a Conference
Networking is important in general, but networking at a conference is EVERYTHING! If you’re not going to a conference to network, you might as well not attend. Yes, I’m being hyperbolic, but the truth is, most of the keynotes you hear at conferences are things you can catch on a podcast or on YouTube already. The real reason to attend is to make killer contacts. I recently attended South by Southwest (SXSW). I wasn't even attending in an official capacity, but what started as a conversation on a train ride, set the tone for my entire SXSW experience and ended in me meeting Marcus Lemonis! And the best part is, anyone can make use of these networking techniques to build valuable contacts, TV stars notwithstanding. Below, I’ve outlined some incredibly simple techniques that everyone can use, whether you’re a man, woman, introvert, extrovert, dog person, cat person, short, tall, decaf … you get the idea.
1. Crash the party. You don’t necessarily have to shell out the big bucks to attend official events -- if the conference events are concentrated in a small area within a city, and if there are plenty of unofficial events you can attend, it’s totally possible to “crash the party”. You just have to be resourceful and scour the internet for unofficial parties and events. While I would have loved to buy an official SXSW badge, it cost between $800 and $2000 and let's be honest, I don't have that kind of money! Plus, there were plenty of badge-less events I could attend. But if you’re going to take this route, you have to keep a few things in mind:
a. Have a purpose - know exactly why you’re there.
b. Be shameless - don’t let yourself feel shy or awkward just because you don’t have an offical pass - just walk in there like you freaking own the place!
c. Get out of your comfort zone. Go to events you wouldn’t normally go to (as long as they’re legal, of course), and talk to people you wouldn’t normally talk to.
d. A SK! With everyone I talked to, I made it clear that I just launched a business and wa s there to network. Because I had communicated clearly what I was there for, people knew exactly how to help me, whether it was sending me lists of badge-less events to attend, or letting me tag along with them to stuff -- more on that later.
2. Spend time at coffee shops in prime locations. Especially if you’re not attending official events, you need a strategy for how to meet conference goers you can network with. Best place to do that is at coffee shops close to where the action is since you’ll see a ton of foot traffic come through. Since I was in Austin, I chose Houndstooth at 4th and Congress, not only because of the location but because it's the BEST damn coffee you'll find in the city! FACT!
3. Sit at communal tables where others will be forced to sit by you. This is more applicable to coffee shops, especially where communal tables with outlets exist. Why outlets? Well, if you feel weird about sitting at a large table by yourself, plug in your phone or laptop and pretend you're just sitting there to charge your stuff. Other people will likely come sit there for the same purpose and you can then chat them up. Of course, try and gauge if the other person wants to talk … don’t bombard them if they seem more introverted or busy. I met all kinds of people from startup founders to actors (no one recognizable, but still!). I even got 1 Twitter follower out of an interaction at said communal table. Hey, it’s better than 0!
4. Chat up people while waiting in line for drinks/coffee. If you're not sure whether the person behind you will be receptive, say something aloud to the bartender/barista/someone else in front of you that you've already established rapport with to catch the attention of the person behind you. For example, the barista at this particular coffee shop was telling the person in front of me about an espresso that had flavors of chocolate and hazelnut ... BINGO! Who doesn’t love talking about that! So I exclaimed out loud to the barista "Wait, did you just say chocolate, hazelnut, and espresso in the same sentence? Because that's my dream come true!" It got a chuckle and a comment out of the person behind me whom I then started to chat with and turned out to be a pretty great contact to have on LinkedIn. And not only that, he was generous enough to share a google doc of all the badge-less events at SXSW that I could attend, including ones that had free food and booze. With a list like that, you’re already winning at life!
5. Ok, so now we’re actually at an event. What’s the best strategy, especially if you're alone? Approach other people who appear to be flying solo. It can be intimidating to walk into a crowded room full of people, especially if you’re there by yourself, but chances are there are lots of other people in the same situation, so don't be afraid approach them. I usually use a line like "ooh another lone wolf like me" or something witty to diffuse the awkwardness. Unless you come off as completely creepy (don’t), most people will be relieved that someone else came to talk to them -- that means less work on their part. Also, you never know whom you’ll meet! One of the “lone wolves” I commiserated with at another badge-less event ended up being there to promote an event for Marcus Lemonis the next day. I went to the event the next day, found out that Marcus Lemonis is actually a TV personality and an incredibly successful entrepreneur with a Shark Tank-style show (I don’t watch network TV), and I actually won a chance to meet him in person and talk to him about my business! Definitely the highlight of my SXSW experience!
6. This is something I picked up from a Tim Ferriss podcast -- don't be snobby about whom you talk to. If you're at a conference, most people are there for a similar purpose, so there's less risk involved with approaching anyone and everyone because the ratio of weirdos to normal people is relatively less ... and let's face it, you're kind of a weirdo yourself, aren't you? So yes, approach everyone rather than just the ones you think you might get something out of. Appearances are deceiving so the ones you're really excited to talk to may turn out to be complete duds whereas there are plenty of interesting people who seem totally unassuming.
7. Don’t limit your networking to just the events/talks you attend. Talk to people everywhere. If you’re at a big national conference in a particular city, chances are, lots of people are in town attending, so whether you’re at the airport, on public transport, at a bar, or in line at a Starbucks, you’re likely to run into someone who’s attending. Don’t be afraid to chat them up. I snuck into an official event thrown by a Fortune 100 company as the plus 1 of an intern who I literally met on the train ride into town that morning! This was purely because of an awesome conversation we had, which ended in her asking me to tag along with her and her friends. If nothing else, I made a new friend and got a free t-shirt … oh and a chance to attend an official event free of charge! I’ll consider that a win even if I didn’t get to meet Gary Vaynerchuk in the process.
8. Use people's names! This a Dale Carnegie classic -- you won't believe how much people appreciate hearing their names come out of other people's mouths. I used this technique with literally everyone I met, not only just people at events, but people in line, and even bartenders, baristas, door people. And not in a way where I deviously wanted something out of them, but because I genuinely like people and I like to see that slight hint of surprised glee when you actually use their names. If you're bad at remembering names, use word association or just casually glance at their business card as they hand it to you. Sure, it may seem like a cop-out, but hey, at least you’re making an effort, and the other person will definitely appreciate that.
9. Ok, all this networking is great, but it means nothing if you don’t follow up. What if you went on a really great date with someone -- would you expect anything to progress if you completely dropped off the face of the planet after? Similarly, it’s absolutely crucial that you follow up with each one of those people you interacted with either through LinkedIn or email the week after the conference. I encourage this on LinkedIn especially, because that’s a great place to grow your network, and when you send them a friend request with a message like “hey it was so great meeting you at X event at Y conference last week”, that message shows up as note whenever you glance at their profile again. So say they approve your request, but you lose touch after a while. Even so, if years later you’re looking to do an informational interview with someone in their field and their name pops up in your search, you’ll automatically have something to reconnect with them on.
So there you have it, guys. I know this was a long post, but I hope you got some actionable advice on how to make the most out of your conference experience. This doesn’t necessarily only have to apply to conferences -- I use many of these tactics on a daily basis. Yes, I'm shameless, but I also genuinely love meeting new people, whether it's for business or for fun.
So now it’s your turn! Get out there and start networking! Let me know what worked for you and what didn't. And if you're still stuck, give us a shout at firstname.lastname@example.org.