Unlike Jeff, though, I find conferences to be an awesome way to connect with people, and I do manage to scale up. I’ll scale up even more once I figure out a couple of things. ;)
So I thought I’d braindump what I’ve learned about making the most of conferences. Someday, this will grow up to be a proper blog post. In the meantime, enjoy, and add your own tips!
If you want to scale up, speak, organize, or volunteer
Speaking is _the_ best way to meet lots of people. It’s fantastic if you’re shy like me, because you can skip all the small talk. Heck, people will come up and start the conversation. People will recognize your name from the program. People will e-mail you afterwards asking for copies of the slides or asking questions that didn’t occur to them during the session. You’ll also usually get into conferences for free, hang out with really interesting people during speakers’ dinners, meet great organizers, and have a much better conference experience than practically anyone else.
If you’re interested in a conference, submit a session for it. What you’re interested in will probably be something other people are interested in. Submit a proposal with a catchy title. Show the organizer you know how to communicate – link to your blog, mention your previous speaking experience, maybe even link to a video of you on YouTube. If you’re entertaining and at least a little informative, you’ve got good chances of being selected. If you don’t get accepted, well, no problem! If you do get accepted, you’ll rock the conference so much more.
If public speaking scares you and you don’t want to work on that yet, see if you can help organize the conference. You’ll need to do a lot more running around, but you’ll connect with a lot of people before and after the conference. Every aspect of organizing conferences has lots of rich networking opportunities. Not only that, you’ll also get to hang out with lots of really interesting people during the speakers/organizers’ dinner.
If you can’t commit to organizing the conference, see if you can volunteer to help out during the event. The registration booth is a terrific place to meet everyone and start matching names, faces, and organizational affiliations. If you’re helping with speakers, that’s a great way to chat with them, too.
One time, I wanted to get into mesh conference, but all their student tickets were sold out. I volunteered for the first day. When they asked if anyone wanted to help at the registration desk, my hand was probably the first one in the air. I checked tons of people in, greeting each of them a cheerful good morning, trying to remember as many names and faces as I could. It was _so_ much fun for me to greet people and make sure their conference got off to a great start! After the morning rush, traffic dwindled to a point where I could catch the last part of the keynote. All throughout the afterparty in the evening, people kept coming up to me and complimenting me on what a great job I did at registration. I was surprised to find out that people noticed and valued something like that! (I also got quite a few job offers and half-joking VC offers at the event… ;) )
So try to speak, organize, or volunteer. Your conference experience will be _so_ much better.
Blog about the fact that you’re going. Check out other people’s blogs. Find out the Twitter tag for the conference. Tell your coworkers you’re going, and ask if there are any sessions they’re particularly interested in. Read the program and plan your attendance, making sure you have plenty of time for hallway conversations. Blog about the sessions you’re planning to attend. Look up the speakers. Look up other participants. Look up friends in the same city. There’s plenty you can do before a conference to make the most of your travel and event time.
During the conference
Even if you’re just a regular participant, you can do a lot to make yourself memorable and make it easy for people to connect with you.
Guide the conversation
Don’t let people inflict the “What do you do?” conversation-killer on themselves or other people. Use more engaging questions that take advantage of your shared context, like:
- What do you think about that session?
- What else are you looking forward to attending?
- What’s the best thing you’ve learned at this conference so far?
- What other conferences do you go to?
- What kind of session do you wish they had here?
Or ask people about what they’re passionate about, not just what they do. Ask them to tell you a story about a recent accomplishment or challenge. Ask them what one thing would help them be even more successful. Ask them about why they got into their line of work. Keep an ear out for things you can help with or people you can introduce.
If you find yourself in a group conversation in the starting stages, you can really improve the conversation experience by shaping the conversation with questions. Get people talking.
If your nametag is on a lanyard, it’ll almost certainly be too low for people to politely read it during the handshake. Shorten the lanyard or pin it close to your right shoulder. If you have a stick-on or pin-on name badge, it goes on your right shoulder, not your left, following the path people’s eyes follow when they shake your hand.
I typically carry my own nametag, which I might wear in addition to the conference-supplied nametag. My nametag makes sure both my first and last name are readable, and includes a tagline. I’ve used variations of “Tech evangelist, storyteller, geek”, or “speaker, writer, storyteller, geek” (for non-technical audiences), and I usually get interesting conversations started around those keywords.
Business cards and homework
Carry business cards, a notebook, and a pen. Women’s blazers often don’t have pockets (grr), but I’ve seen both men and women use the back of their conference badge to hold business cards for quick access. If possible, put your picture on your business card, or have personal cards that include your picture, tagline, and a few suggested things to talk to you about. Putting a list of talking points or topics on the front or back of your business card is a great conversation help, because it makes it easier for your conversation partner to learn more about potentially common interests. As for the picture – we’ve all had those moments of going through stacks of business cards and not remembering who they came from. Make it easy for people to remember you.
Have a blog, and put its address on your card. That makes it easy for people to look you up afterwards, get to know you, and feel that you’re worth talking to.
Create value with your card. I sometimes make custom business cards for an event. For example, at a networking event, I might put a list of my top five networking books on the back of my business card. It’s a nice little thing, and it sometimes gets people talking about you.
Many people won’t have their own business cards, which is why you should have a notebook and a pen. The Moleskine notebooks are great because they have pockets in the back for business cards. Notebooks are also very important because they give you a way to write down stuff about people you talk to, which makes it easy for you to remember why you have someone’s business card. See networking with moleskines for why you should keep your ears open for the opportunity to give yourself homework. THIS IS KEY. If you find out that someone has a problem you can address or needs to meet someone you can introduce them to, you have a good reason to follow up with them. Don’t just collect business cards – that’s like collecting friends on Facebook. ;)
Food and drink
Carry your drink in your left hand, so that your right hand doesn’t get cold and clammy. This is important for handshakes.
Eat very lightly, if at all. It’s hard to talk with your mouth full, and it’s hard to circulate with a plate full of stuff. Sometimes I snack on a granola bar before going to an event. Hanging out near the food or the drinks is still a good idea, though, as most people will go by you at some point. Having some of the food also makes it easier for you to make conversation about it.
“Nice to meet you” is a dangerous phrase, especially if you’re like me and you often forget names or faces. “Nice to see you” is safer because you can use it for people you’ve just met and for people you’ve already met and should remember.
Don’t be afraid to confess that you’ve forgotten people’s names. Ask them again, and make a point of using that name.
If you’re on the receiving end of this–someone has forgotten your name, or they say “Nice to meet you” when you’ve met before–don’t embarrass the other person by pointing out the error or putting them on the spot. If there’s the least bit of hesitation about your name, introduce yourself again, and give a few keywords that may help jog people’s memories. Good manners is about making other people feel at ease.
If you have a networking buddy, conferences are much nicer. They can step in and introduce themselves in order to elicit a name from someone you don’t want to admit you’ve forgotten. If you’re looking out for potential introductions for each other–interesting people your networking buddy might want to meet–you’ll cover more of the conference and have more interesting conversations.
After the conference
Blog about what you learned from the conference. If you can do this during the conference, great! You can tell other people about your blog. People often want to be in more than one session at a time, and your notes can be quite valuable. Blog a post-conference summary, too.
Follow up with people through e-mail or phone calls. It helps to have a good e-mail system that makes it easy to dash a quick note off to everyone saying it was nice to see them, sharing a link to your conference notes, and adding any notes on what you promised to follow up on.
A conference is a fairly big chunk of time, but it’s a great way to catch up with old friends and make new connections. Make the most of it.
Here are a few of my favorite networking books with conference-related tips:
- Never Eat Alone (Keith Ferrazzi) has great tips on becoming a conference commando.
- Work the Pond (Darcy Rezac) has a good chapter on networking with a buddy.
- How to Talk to Anyone (Leil Lowndes) is packed with tips
- Make Your Contacts Count (Anne Baber, Lynne Waymon) has tips on how to build your relationship with people over time
This is how I think I might scale up even more:
- I can plan the conferences I’m going to on my calendar, so I don’t end up missing anything interesting (like last time – I totally forgot about the Toronto Tech Week!)
- I can get better at asking my manager for education budget allotment so that I can go to more conferences, showing that I share a lot of that value through blog posts and conference reports
- I can get better at following up with people by allocating more post-conference time for follow-ups
- I can get better at following up with people by scheduling regular follow-ups or setting up some kind of clipping service ;)
- I can get better at matching names with faces, maybe by taking pictures of people
- I can learn more so that I can submit more session proposals
- I can improve my presentation style and record more of my talks so that I have a fantastic “demo reel”
- I can learn more about organizing conferences – working on that by helping out with #drupalcampto!
Someday, I’ll get to the point where I’m organizing conferences and other events, bringing lots of interesting speakers and attendees together for great conversations, and introducing people all over the show. =)
I’ll also have built a system for making it easier for other people to do pre- and post-conference networking. It’ll be lots of fun. Someday… =)