How to make new connections at your next professional conference
Conferences are a great opportunity to learn new skills, discover new ideas and meet new people — but many professionals don’t utilize their conference time to the fullest extent. Here are some ideas for what to do before, during and after the conference to make sure you can make the most out of every moment.
Whether you give a presentation or volunteer your time, getting involved is a great way to make new connections. Especially if you don’t like schmoozing and small talk, getting involved can create opportunities for organic connection on topics of interest.
Search for friends-of-friends who are also attending, email a speaker you’re looking forward to hearing or message an influencer to set up coffee. It’s almost always time well spent.
Review the conference schedule and mark the sessions you’d like to attend. If none of the presentations in a given time slot are of interest, think about other out-of-the-box ways to make better use of the time. Grab lunch with a colleague, buy coffee for a potential client, or spend some time preparing for upcoming sessions or social mixers. Not every valuable experience at a conference happens inside a conference room.
In addition to remembering to pack your toothbrush and slippers, think through what else you can bring along to make the most of your conference experience:
- Business cards
- Leave-behinds (like brochures, sales sheets and other giveaways)
- Branded gear from the Merchandise Store
- Presentation material (like handouts, cables/adaptors and visual aids)
- Materials for vendor booth (like a tablecloth, posters and cardboard displays)
- Anything else you need to network effectively
Rehearse an elevator pitch
Have a 30-second blurb about yourself that you can whip out whenever someone asks a “tell me about yourself” type of question. It should succinctly describe your business, your goals, your background and anything else you want people to know. You’re selling yourself as much as your services, so prepare in advance and do it well.
Prepare icebreaker questions
These can be a lifesaver when it comes to steering interactions away from banal small talk or awkward silence. Use the list as an aid during networking sessions if the conversation begins to lag. They can be as simple as “What was your favorite session today?” or “What’s the most rewarding thing about what you do?” Check out this article for more icebreaker question ideas.
Do yourself a favor and jot down interesting ideas as you hear them. This lets you refer back to information later, swap tidbits with a colleague and show your instructor you’re paying attention. It’s a win-win-win.
Everyone is there to learn, so there’s no shame in asking what you think might be a silly question. You’ll get more from the session, and other audience members will probably feel more comfortable asking their questions as a result.
Love it or hate it, conference social functions are the best place to bump into new contacts and build authentic relationships. If mingling in a crowd isn’t your thing, look for more opportunities to meet people in smaller groups. Set your own terms for how you want to socialize, and then hold yourself to them. For even more socializing tips and tricks, watch this video.
Professional conferences are more of a marathon than a sprint. If you need to retreat to your room to recharge, it’s OK. Get the most you can out of your experience, but don’t forget to take care of yourself in the process.
Within a few days, reach out to your new contacts. Don’t wait too long — the window for turning a one-off contact into a long-term connection closes quickly. Do something small that will help you capitalize on the possibility for future connection, like sending an email or messaging them on social media.
You spent all this time learning new information that relates to your business, so now put it to work. Start planning immediately how you’ll implement new ideas or test interesting strategies, and think through what it will take to make those plans a reality. Consider writing a blog post, sharing key takeaways with existing clients, or scheduling a brainstorm session with coworkers to discuss your newfound ideas and strategies.
If you found the conference to be valuable experience, start making plans to be there again next year. Pencil it in on your calendar and make a few notes of what you might do differently next time.