In March 2009, at the SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, I attended dozens of sessions and parties and and met hundreds of people. But it was a chance meeting with Guy Kawasaki on the trade show floor that had the most impact for me. I saw him, ran up to him and introduced myself, and offered to help him in any way I could to promote his latest book. We exchanged info, and since then, the uber-successful Guy has become a great mentor and friend to me.
Many business professionals spend time every year attending conferences. I’ve attended and spoken at over 200 conferences in the last fifteen years. And while it’s great to be inspired and to learn at conferences, the most valuable asset of a conference is the people you meet and the relationships you can form and nurture. I’ve met dozens of people at conferences who have had a tremendous impact on my career and life, including Guy Kawasaki, Sheryl Sandberg, Jeffrey Hayzlett, and Randi Zuckerberg. On the heels of one of the most important conferences of the year, D11: All Things Digital, here are five secrets to better networking at conferences:
1) Research speakers and attendees ahead of time – and reach out.
A week or two before the conference, look at the speaker list and, if available, the attendee list. Research the people you’d most like to meet and spend time with, and then reach out via email, Twitter or LinkedIn. Figure out how you can truly help them – and then offer your help.By showing your friendship first, you’ll be differentiating yourself from everyone else, who just wants to get something from them. Set up a 10-15 minute meeting over coffee or a drink. That way, you won’t have to scramble and compete to get their attention once at the conference.
2) Use social media to connect with and compliment the speakers.
Chances are, you want to meet and network with speakers even more than with fellow attendees. But so does everyone else. One of the best ways to grab a speaker’s attention is to engage with him or her on Twitter before the conference, and pay him/her a genuine compliment before or during the speech. I’ll often then send a private message on Twitter to set up a meeting, so that I don’t have to fight through the crowd after his/her speech for 2 meaningless seconds of conversation.
3) Skip a panel or two and hang out in the break room.
As valuable as the content of a conference can be, if you’re there to meet people, it can be more valuable to hang out outside the panels, in the break room, trade show floor, or by the coffee or snacks. There, you’ll have more time to meet people – a speaker who’s just arrived, or an attendee who stepped out to take a phone call, or a sponsor you might be able to partner with. Most conferences have built-in breaks and networking time, which can be very valuable. But consider making more of this time for yourself – you can always get the notes from that panel later.
4) Forget just giving out business cards – collect them.
The traditional thinking for conferences is “Bring lots of business cards to hand out to everyone you meet.” I bring my business cards to conferences. But I’d rather be in control of who I connect with – collecting cards from the people I most want to stay in touch with. So, do ask each person you meet for his/her card- and then, do connect with them on LinkedIn – either after the conference, or right then and there. Always include a personal message when connecting.
5) Ask meaningful questions of the people you meet.
Everyone else is asking, “Where are you from?” and “Where do you work?” and other small talk at conferences. Larry Benet taught me to ask better questions, such as “What are you most passionate about?” and “What charity do you care most about?” and “Who at this conference would you most like to be connected with?” That way, you get people talking about something they really care about, and you can form a more meaningful relationship faster. Of course, the most important question you can ask of someone is, “How can I help you?” When you ask these questions, listen well, and be genuinely interested. This will make a difference for you.
6) Have a signature style.
I have 21 pairs of orange sneakers and shoes, and I wear one to every conference I speak at or attend. It’s noticeable, it’s memorable, and it’s a often a conversation starter. It was my orange shoes that got the attention of a prominent investor at a conference recently, who ended up funding my new company. Of course, this doesn’t mean you should go out and buy orange sneakers – but you should think about how you can differentiate yourself. Whether it’s a certain color tie you wear, signature earrings, or a blazer – having a signature look will help you stand out from the masses at conferences, meet more people, and be remembered.
Above all else, when you attend a conference, have concrete goals in mind for your networking in advance, be both interesting and interested, and spend time to get to know people and help them. If you follow these simple tips, you’ll be able to meet more people and get more out of each conference you attend.