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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.
These events can be great when you are on the job search, looking for mentorship opportunities, or just general business networking that could pay dividends later. While it may seem intimidating (especially if you are an introvert), 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.
Smart Networkers 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. Also, brush up on your networking skills before the event, grab coffee with a coworker you don’t know very well to get you back in the mindset of talking with semi-strangers if you haven’t in a while.
Are you trying to get a promotion or a new job at a small business that will be represented at this event? Are you hoping to switch careers or industries entirely and looking for new networking contacts to help make the transition? Or perhaps what you really need is a mentor in your professional network, 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 (not just their surface-level social media pages). 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 for valuable information later on.
Also, look into the professional associations sponsoring the event. They might have their own, smaller networking groups that you can join to connect with others with similar interests.
Reach out in advance
Say you’ve identified a job opportunity 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 and share information. 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.
Networking Tips 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 (especially if you are a business owner). 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. This could include coworkers you don’t see much at the office, or other attendees you meet the day of.
Be genuine when building relationships
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 their own career development, 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.
It is also key to know when someone is reaching out to you to build a connection. Networking opportunities don’t just exist for you to help yourself get ahead, but for you to help others who take the opportunity to reach out. Being a good mentor yourself will also attract other leaders to you.
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 online social networking, 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.
People with a strong network are usually doing a lot of work to keep the pipelines open and sharing information, not waiting for others to reach out and start the conversation.
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.