Over the past decade, the two of us have attended, on average, one and half conferences per week. Are you jealous? We didn't think so.
As speakers, we’ve shared our business messages at more than 800 association conventions and corporate meetings. From doing that, we’ve learned how to make the most out of our days spent on the event floor. With a big meetings-industry event like IMEX America happening this month, followed by Professional Convention Management's annual conference in January, planners like you actually get to be attendees for a change—and you also need to make the most of your time on the event floor.
First and foremost is this point for anyone attending a conference: Far more than the information you gather, it's the people you meet who can influence your life in hugely positive ways—but that's only if you meet them. Here, then, are a few ways we’ve figured out to most effectively network at conferences:
Find the most interesting person in the room. Honestly, it’s not natural for human beings to walk up to others they don't know and begin a conversation. From the days of early man, our species has learned to be wary of strangers (there were thousands of years where it was reasonably likely they would hit us over the head with a club and take our stuff). The two of us are fairly social people; nonetheless, approaching someone new at a convention can still feel a bit like Joey Tribbiani from the TV show Friends throwing out his favorite pick-up line: “How you doin’?”
But one thing you must realize is that just about everyone feels the exact same way. So you can advance the process simply by saying, “Hi, I am (your name here). I don’t know a soul here, how about you?” Present your business card and ask for one in return. Ask about why they came to the conference, their organization and their role, how long they’ve worked in the industry, where they're from, or whatever else you think might put that person more at ease. Think about it this way: You have a lot of control over whether the person you're talking to is one of the more interesting people in the room.
Get involved behind the scenes. There’s usually a way to get more deeply involved in any conference you attend. More organizers are offering attendees a chance to work on community-service projectssuch as a food-bank or park-cleanup initiative; others look for volunteers to take on a shift as a conference worker, helping to direct people or even introduce speakers. There might be acharity fundraiser eventor an early morning 5K run. We ran (actually, Chester walked and Adrian ran) in such an event recently to benefit the employee-assistance program of a company where we were speaking. It felt good to give, and we networked with at least a dozen great people along the way. Getting involved behind the scenes is a prime way to network and meet other people passionate about your industry. The relationships you build will inevitably help you better understand opportunities in your business.
Follow up, knucklehead! It happens to all of us: You return to the office with a stack of business cards, but you have 30 messages from customers and your office administrator is telling you to fill out a Why-I-Was-Away-From-Work slip for HR. So the stack of cards gets pushed to the side, and soon thereafter into a drawer.
Instead, set a goal: Within five days, reach out to everyone you met at the conference. Connect with them via LinkedIn, and then send an email recounting your conversation and what you learned from it. Even better, you could pen a brief handwritten thank-you note with your business card inside—it's old school, which makes the gesture all the more meaningful and effective.
Take things a step further by blogging or tweeting about what you learned at the conference—and who you learned it from. You can even connect with conference speakers you liked and mention the ways you'll try to implement their ideas. Chances are that a good number of the people you follow up with will become friends and perhaps even valuable contacts in your career.
Bottom line: The two of us are always amazed at how many really knowledgeable and interesting people there are at the conferences we attend—as long as we take the initiative to reach out a hand and say, “Hello.”
Adrian Gostick & Chester Elton are the New York Times bestselling authors of The Carrot Principle, All In, and The Best Team Wins. Learn more at TheCultureWorks.com.