Regardless of whether you travel often for work, chances are that you occasionally find yourself at conferences or other professional development events, where career-making connections can be made. While it may seem intimidating, networking doesn’t have to be a scary word. Here are a few ways you can get the most out of your next conference, convention, or career event.
How to Effectively Plan Ahead
The best way to make the most of your time at the conference is to research all aspects of it before you go. Decide what you want to gain from the event and that’ll help you focus and manage your time well.
Are you trying to get a promotion or a new job at a company that will be represented at this event? Are you hoping to switch careers or industries entirely? Or perhaps what you really need is a mentor, someone who’s been where you are and has ended up where you want to be.
Make a few SMART goals for yourself—Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely—to help guide your conference planning. For example, it’s better to set a goal to “identify three people with careers I want to emulate” rather than to set a goal to “secure a mentor,” which will take more time and follow-up than you may be able to achieve over the span of a three or four-day conference.
Do your research
Read up on the events scheduled throughout the conference, and dig into the backgrounds of each speaker. You may find that while the topics of some lectures may not sound riveting to you at first, the speaker, moderator, or panel might be exactly whom you want to connect with. There’s usually a bit of time to spare between sessions, which gives you the perfect opportunity to introduce yourself to the speaker, make a genuine connection, and open the door for following up later on.
Reach out in advance
Say you’ve identified a job you really want, and you’ve learned that the hiring manager will be in attendance at the conference. Reach out! Shoot them a quick note that says you’ve applied and you’d love to buy them coffee or lunch when you’re both in town next week for the expo. Try not to take it personally if they don’t respond, and don’t give up hope, either—keep an eye out for them and make a point to introduce yourself when you do eventually cross paths.
How to Network at the Event
Hands down, the most valuable thing you can take home from any professional development event will always be connections. But these take time to build, and you can’t collect them as easily as you do business cards. Approach it with the right mindset—think long-term— and you’ll quickly become a pro at networking.
Minimize your day-to-day work tasks
When you attend a conference or event, it can feel like work. Since you’re on the clock and not on vacation, assume you will have some day to day work to respond while at a conference. However, try not to bring any deadlines with you. Take advantage of downtime to get to know other attendees.
Grab meals with other attendees
The best way to genuinely connect with other attendees who may prove to be valuable connections later is to grab lunch, drinks, or dinner together during lulls in the conference. Consider looking up restaurants ahead of time so you’re prepared with a few suggestions, then ask folks you want to get to know better to join you.
You know when someone is trying to connect with your resume or your connections more than they’re interested in getting to know you as a person. Even if you’ve identified someone who seems to hold the keys to your future, opt for getting to know them as a person before giving your elevator pitch.
Start by connecting on a human level and building a real relationship. Instead of listing off what you’ve accomplished, ask questions about where they’re from, what their hobbies are, what you have in common. The business will come easily in the days that follow. You might even find that they’ll reach out to you first with an opportunity.
Go beyond the business card
Business cards can be useful and effective, especially if you’ve invested in a unique or interesting design. But everyone connects in so many ways beyond email and phone these days. If there’s a social network that’s super-relevant to your line of work, pull out your phone and ask “Hey, are you on Instagram?” and follow them right away. They’re likely to pull out their phone and follow you right back.
How to Keep Building Connections After the Event
Do not underestimate the importance of following up, and don’t assume the other person will reach out if you don’t. Here’s how to stay top of mind after the event is over.
Be the first one to follow up
Even if you had a super-productive one-on-one meeting and the other person says “Great! I’ll email you more details about this next week,” there’s a good chance that email will get lost in the shuffle unless you send the first email.
You don’t have to follow up on anything specific if what you’re aiming for is continuing to build a professional relationship—you could just send a quick note that says “Hey Jane, It was great to meet you at the conference last week. Wishing you the best of luck with [that thing she mentioned she’s excited about]. Please do let me know if you’re ever in [your city]! Talk soon.” You can also do this via LinkedIn instead of email.
Send handwritten thank-you cards
Did you get useful advice from someone? Did a high-profile speaker generously give you their time? Did you meet someone who’s hiring for a job you want? Look up their mailing address and make a lasting impression by sending them an old-fashioned thank you card in the mail. It really stands out because very few people send them these days. Include your business card in the envelope, even if you gave them one in person at the event.