I just returned from the International Leadership Association’s (ILA) Annual Global Conference in West Palm Beach, Florida (which I would highly recommend visiting if you ever have the chance) and I thought this would be a great time to talk about strategies for networking. Even if you don’t attend professional conferences, I think you are likely to find some value and applicability within virtually any industry. In fact, I find it difficult to think of anyone, in any profession, who couldn’t benefit (at least a little) from expanding their network.
Let me start by saying that I’ve talked to a few friends and colleagues who have this perception about networking that makes it seem like it’s this undesirable thing to do — as if it’s something to be ashamed of or something that others may find annoying. So, I’m just going to clearly state that you should absolutely take pride in your networking abilities and in no way feel ashamed.
Because really, networking is all about making connections that can be mutually beneficial. People actually want you to network with them. Plus, you can take some comfort in knowing that when people attend conferences, everyone is essentially there for the same reason — to geek out with other nerds about the awesome stuff we get to study (what else?!)!!
If you do a quick search of the word ‘networking’ online, you’ll quickly find that there are a lot of articles with a lot of different advice (sometimes even conflicting) – which can make it difficult to know which approaches are best. Today, I’m going to talk about what’s worked well for me and I’m even going to discuss some things to avoid. I’ll also highlight a few notes from other experts and some approaches I’m planning to try out in the future.
Be engaged. I know you have a million other things going on in your life and you’re taking time away from work to attend this conference — and wouldn’t this be an awesome opportunity to get caught up on a few things while you’re away from the office?? But please, resist the urge and commit to being present while you’re at the conference. It’s important – possibly the most important thing on this list.
There’s so much to be gained from listening to and learning about what others are doing in your field. I always come back from conferences feeling excited and re-energized because talking to (and learning from) others in my field helps remind me why I love what I do. It also provides opportunities to talk through challenges with my own research and to discover the new and innovative areas of research that are being explored by fellow leadership nerds.
I realize you may not feel as passionately about your own field of study or industry of work (though I hope you do!), but even if you just hang out in the common area for the majority of the conference – choose to be in the present moment, rather than somewhere else. I’ll talk more about some strategies for doing this in the following paragraphs.
Be extroverted (even if you’re not really an extrovert). This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I am a total introvert *gasp*. I just happen to be really good at pretending to be an extrovert when it’s necessary (or just because I want to). And, here’s the thing – anyone can act like an extrovert. It’s all about setting yourself up for success by ensuring that the way you connect with others is a comfortable experience (or at least as comfortable as possible). The main thing is, if you don’t make an effort to network, it probably isn’t going to just happen on its own. So, you need to be a little bit intentional in your approach. (The next three points will offer some ideas on how to do this.)
Prepare ahead of time. It’s a really good idea to look at the conference agenda ahead of time (which is provided online beforehand in most cases) and see who’s going to be there and what sessions you might like to attend. Skim the directory for your ‘celebrity crushes’ (I know they aren’t real celebrities, but in our tiny worlds of research they sometimes feel that way) and find out when they’re speaking. Then, look at topic areas of interest and make some decisions about the sessions you definitely want (or need) to attend.
A really easy way to approach a potential contact is to simply introduce yourself after they’ve presented (but wait to do so until the entire session is complete so you don’t interrupt or distract from other speakers). When I introduce myself, I usually start by sharing some things I find interesting about their research, possibly mention my own area of research (especially if it’s something similar), and exchange business cards. That’s it – it’s super short and to the point. Lately, I’ve also been asking if they’re on LinkedIn and then I let them know that they can expect to receive a connection request from me.
If there are people who you know you definitely want to meet while at the conference, consider contacting them ahead of time to arrange a set meeting time (maybe for an early breakfast). This is not something that I have typically done in the past, but I can certainly see its benefits (and plan to try it out in the future). One-on-one face time can be hard to get while at a conference because there is always so much happening and generally lots of other people who want to meet the same individuals. Keep in mind that if you’re trying to connect with someone who is a sort of celeb (because they’ve published a lot, or wrote a book (or ten), or because they are the father/mother of a particular theory), they will likely have lots of other ‘fans’ with whom you will be competing for their attention.
Create opportunities to interact. I generally prefer to talk with one person at a time rather than trying to meet people in a large gathering. This means creating opportunities for interaction is sort of crucial for me. There are a few ways to do this. If there’s a common area (like a designated area to work or an area where there is coffee for conference goers), I will generally look for a table where one person is already working and ask if I can join them. I’ll pull out my Surface Pro and work on checking emails or pull out my program guide and browse the upcoming sessions for a bit (all things which I generally need to do anyway). If I’m getting myself coffee or a snack, I generally ask if my new table mate would like anything while I’m up.
At some point, it’s almost inevitable that the other person at the table will initiate a conversation (which I prefer because it generally signals to me that they’re at a place where they can pause what they’re doing and talk for a few minutes). They may ask how my day is going or how I’ve enjoyed the conference so far or ask what has brought me to the conference (a great opportunity to talk about your own research). In any case, this approach feels more informal and less forced to me. It seems relatively easy to carry on a cordial conversation and it’s pretty easy to check-out of the conversation (whenever you’re ready) by returning to your work or noting that you need to get to the next session.
An article by Ben Waber discussed a similar strategy that’s worked well for him. While visiting a multi-day conference, he decided he would continuously ride in a small shuttle (only holding 2-3 people) which transported individuals to sessions at the various conference locations. He did this to create opportunities to meet and interact with other conference goers in a more informal setting and limited time frame (I found it to be both clever and hilarious). He actually claims that these networking opportunities are likely more impactful and meaningful than attending the actual conference sessions – so, you shouldn’t feel badly about missing a session or two if it allows you to develop new connections with people. Though I would caution against skipping out on most of the conference (isn’t that the reason you came?).
Express interest in others. Generally speaking, people love to be admired. So, ask questions about others’ research, listen with intent (genuinely), and praise their work. I think this is where some people may miss the point of networking and start to think of it negatively. The purpose should not be to connect with others so you can get something from them. It should be to connect with others because you have something to give — remember, the idea is to create a mutually beneficial relationship.
Before you arrive at the conference, spend some time thinking about what you may have to offer. Are you interested in collaborating on a project? Have you done some relevant research or written a literature review which could be helpful? Are you interested in helping plan an event or workshop? Have you developed resources (such as surveys or lesson plans) that you would be willing to share with others? Would you consider visiting someone’s campus and/or giving a guest lecture? There are likely many things you have to offer — it may just take some creative thinking on your part to discover what those things are.
Have your elevator pitch in your back pocket. Even if you’re not actively applying for jobs, the closer you are to graduation, the more likely you are to be asked questions such as, “What’s your research about?” or “So, what’s the next step?” or “What types of jobs will you be looking for (and where)?” It’s a good idea to have some talking points in mind to avoid drawing a total blank when these questions arise. It doesn’t have to be long either, a 30-second rundown of your research can provide a lot of information.
It’s also okay to say you don’t know the answer to a question. People tend to appreciate honesty and sometimes they will offer insights that you would not otherwise have access to. I’m honestly not sure what type of job I’m going to be looking for after graduation. So at this most recent conference, I simply told people that I’m approaching the job market with an open mind and looking at potential non-academic opportunities. To my surprise, a lot of the people I met have worked outside of academia as consultants and were able share knowledge based on their experiences, both past and present. I was even presented with a couple of potential employment opportunities.
The main take-away: It pays to be honest.
Dress to impress. Every conference is a bit different in terms of how formal or casual the dress code is and the location of the venue often has an impact as well. For instance, when I was in Florida for this latest conference, I saw lots of people wearing sleeveless tops and open toe shoes, which was completely appropriate given the beach context. If you haven’t attended a particular conference in the past, you may want to ask a trusted colleague or mentor what to expect – I imagine this will vary depending on things like your specific field, the size of the conference, its location, etc.
While there are many different opinions on appropriate dress, I tend to error on the side of over-dressed rather than under-dressed. If you’re giving a formal presentation, I think you should dress professionally. This doesn’t mean you have to wear a full suit, but you should probably avoid wearing something like jeans or shorts with flip flops. On the other hand, if you’re presenting a poster during an after-hours reception, it’s likely to be a much more informal and relaxed setting, so jeans may be completely appropriate.
The most common issues I see with conference attire don’t have as much to do with the level of formality, as with the overall functionality and practicality (for lack of better terms). I’m not about to tell you that your neck line needs to be “this high” or your skirt should be “at least this long” or that you need to wear a belt with your trousers. Your clothing choices are an expression of who you are and you should wear what makes you feel the most comfortable. All I’m going to say is that you can expect to be sitting down and standing up a lot throughout any conference – you will likely go up and down stairs (multiple times) and/or use an elevator (which may or may not be made of glass so that the whole world can see in). You will probably do a ton of walking as well (so consider bringing comfortable shoes).
Additionally, if you’re presenting, there’s a very good chance that you could be asked to help move chairs, tables, the projector, or to pull down a screen (all things which have actually happened to me). I’m only telling you this (especially for women, but men can also benefit from this), so that you’re prepared and you can wear clothing that moves with you and covers what needs to be covered so that you feel 100% comfortable and confident. Literally, all I’m suggesting you do is take a few minutes while you’re packing for your trip to try on your clothes and make sure when you bend over, sit down, or raise your arms, your clothing is covering what you want it to be covering. Okay, now I’m done. 🙂
Assume you’re always being watched. I’m not saying this to be creepy or to make you feel paranoid, but I always start seeing other conference goers as soon as I make it to my connecting flight (and it’s possible you may even have colleagues on your initial flight as well). Yes, you should totally be allowed to have some fun while you’re at your conference, but keep in mind that this is not a vacation. This is a professional development opportunity and you are primarily attending for the purpose of work.
Remember to be on your best behavior. Avoid things like over-consumption of alcohol or gossiping about colleagues (or even students) when in public areas. Venting about your advisor or other conference goers is something you should save for private conversations. Honestly, I think you should even avoid it in the elevator because there’s a very good chance you could be overheard by someone who knows the person you are talking about (this actually happened to one of my colleagues).
If you really need to have a good vent session (because sometimes this happens when we’re in close proximity to the same people over an extended period of time), I would advise you to go to the privacy of your own room and call a friend or significant other who can allow you to get some things of your chest. That way, you don’t risk being overheard or saying something in the moment that you could potentially regret.
Follow up with contacts after the conference. Exchanging your business card with other professionals is a great first step to connecting with them, but there’s more you can do once you’re home to ensure you stay connected. I mentioned earlier that I typically ask individuals if they’re on LinkedIn and make a point of letting them know that I will send a request to connect. I typically wait a few days after the conference before sending connection requests and follow up emails because I realize people tend to be pretty busy when they first get back to work (although I have had people add or email me while still at the conference or even on the way home and that’s okay too).
I typically send a quick, individualized email letting contacts know that it was nice to meet them. I always think it’s a good idea to remind them of where we met (so they are more likely to recall who I am), so I might say something like, “I really enjoyed your presentation on __________ and loved chatting with you about ___________. I’m hoping we can stay in touch and possibly collaborate on a project in the future as we discussed” (or whatever you may have discussed as a potential outcome of this relationship). I often add that I’ve already sent them an add request on LinkedIn and look forward to seeing them at next year’s conference (if not before).
On occasion, I will have someone ask me to share resources with them such as teaching materials like a case study or survey (which I always find to be pretty flattering because it means other people think you have cool resources). While you are certainly never required to share resources, I often think it’s a good practice to share things (as long as it’s not something you may potentially publish) because it’s a great way to develop connections. And when you share resources, people tend to be more willing to share with you. If someone asked you to share a resource while at the conference, be sure to actually send it to them once you’re home. Additionally, if someone shares a resource with you, be sure to thank them for not only taking time out of their very busy schedule to do so, but also for their willingness to share with you.
Networking is an art that takes practice – the more you do it, the more comfortable and skilled you will become at networking.
Remember that it’s better to make a few meaningful connections than to make lots of connections with people whom you won’t actually remember (and probably won’t remember you).
Be strategic in choosing who to connect with and don’t sell yourself short or feel shame about networking — you have a lot to offer!!
If you have other networking strategies or stories to share, I would love to read about them in the comments section below!
All my best to you,
Balkhi, S. (2018). How to network like a pro at conferences. Business.com. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from https://www.business.com/articles/conference-networking-tips/
Boyce, E. (2018). How to maximize networking at your next conference. Piqued Public Relations. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from https://www.piquedpr.com/how-to-maximize-networking-at-your-next-conference/
Lindau, A. G. (2018). Networking at conferences, or how to win-win at Lindau. Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from https://www.lindau-nobel.org/networking-at-conferences-or-how-to-win-win-at-lindau/
Waber, B. (2017). This strategy for networking at conferences will work even if you’re not a natural. Quartz at Work. Retrieved October 29, 2018, from https://qz.com/work/1139912/how-to-network-at-conferences-even-if-youre-not-a-natural/
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