You probably know the awkward situation at conferences when most people are there to play a round of “who can collect the most business cards”? As a wise professional, that shouldn’t be your game. It’s a game with no winners!
To use the networking components at conferences right, and actually enjoy it, you need to change the game. If done with the right attitude and a little preparation, networking can be joyful, rewarding and can create long-lasting connections. Here are seven simple steps you can take that will help you make the most of your next conference.
Before the Conference
1. Set a Specific Goal for Attending the Conference
What makes it worth the time and money you (or your firm) spend to go to this event? Think entrepreneurial! What is your return on investment? Before every conference, sit down for a few minutes and think what specifically you want to achieve by attending this event. “Meeting new people” is not specific enough for you to be motivated and be able to measure your success. Is it getting X new clients? Making connections to X new companies you haven’t worked with yet? Connect with X firms from *enter a country*? It can be anything specific that you can measure, and it is up to you to define it and hold yourself accountable to it.
2. Do Your Research About the Conference and its Participants
Many conference organisers make it easy for you by offering all the tools you need to do your research: booklets with the schedule, speaker biographies, conference websites, an app to connect with other participants. Go through those materials and plan strategically. Who is there that you want to connect with? Why? How will you do that? What might you have in common? Can you reach out to them before the event? What sessions or receptions will have likeminded people? Learn everything you need about the topics you want to focus on.
3. Update Your Social Profiles
Most networking opportunities will somehow materialise through an email or a request on a social channel. When did you last update your profile picture or LinkedIn Summary? Make sure all your business profiles are up to date with relevant information.
Equally important: are you portraying yourself as an expert in the field you seek to engage in? Are you posting value-add content and comments on LinkedIn? When did you last publish something? If you have not done so recently, now is the time to do so.
Finally, for the conference, make sure you have different ways to provide contact information for people you meet. It can be a traditional business card, or it can be an instant request on LinkedIn, while you are enjoying a glass of wine with the person you’ve just met.
During the Conference
4. First Impressions Matter! Have Your Introduction & Pitch Ready
First impressions only get 2 seconds! Always think in advance about the way you want to introduce yourself and your work. When people ask about your work, never say “I am a law student” or “I am a corporate lawyer”. Surprise them by saying something unexpected, something different. Be memorable and do not try to blend in, this is not how you get yourself noticed.
A great way to share what you do is by following a three-part message. 1) Who do work with/for? 2) What do you do for them 3) What does it enable them to do?
I am a Negotiation trainer working with (1) lawyers of major firms to (2) systematise their negotiation approach so they can (3) get best results for their clients every time. A Tax Lawyer might say: I am a tax lawyer working with (1) MNCs (2) to demystify double taxation avoidance agreements (3) helping them optimise return on foreign investment.
Another way is to begin with a line that hooks them. There are various types of hooks: Evening events with a glass of wine sometimes lend themselves to funny ones such as “I run an alcoholics anonymous group for lawyers”, the bold ones such as “I needed a hobby so I am working to change the landscape of the legal industry in our country. The idea is to make them realise you are a unique individual with interesting ideas and not “just another lawyer”.
5. Engage Them in a Conversation
Let’s assume you’ve made a great first impression. What now? Pick them up! Shift the focus on them! People like to talk about themselves, their experiences, their opinions and about what is important to them. If you want to really connect with them, show interest in what they do, ask them questions that you know they will identify with and will get them talking. As simple starters, ask them what brought them to the event, in what area they specialise in, what made them specialise in their field, etc. Listen more than you speak, use the opportunity to learn something new and let them shine.
After the Conference
6. Use What You Have Learned Wisely
Connection is personal, not business. Make sure to also remember the little personal things you have talked about, maybe a joint interest, an upcoming vacation, a project, a hobby so you can use them on your follow ups. It helps to write those down (I always make notes on the back of their business card) as you get back to your hotel room so you don’t forget, along with what topic you will follow up on with them or how and when you plan to reconnect.
7. Prepare Your Follow up strategy
All you have done so far is of no value unless combined with a solid follow up strategy. How will you connect immediately after the conference? Get the most out of the conference by setting a system in place for following up. And most importantly: personalise all messages based on the insights you gathered about each person during your conversations.
The worst messages I get are generic “if you ever need my services” or “here is our catalogue of offerings”. The good messages talk about how our conversation has influenced them and how we can stay in touch in the future. The best messages share something of value to the other side (and even keep doing that regularly).
Prepare. Prepare. Prepare. No matter what you will be attending in your business or personal life: an interview, a meeting, a presentation, a conference or an event, preparation will be key to your success in connecting with people.
Get the right mindset and no conference will be boring or a challenge from now on!