Whether you’re a natural extrovert or the thought of talking to strangers makes you break into a sweat, industry conferences can be advantageous to your career. Not only do they present great opportunities to learn cutting edge ideas in your industry, they help you meet more people in your field. Expanding your network leads to better business opportunities.
If you’re apprehensive about attending an industry conference, here are some tips to help you get the most out of the experience.
Know Your Goals
Not all industry conferences are equal, so plan accordingly. Consider first why you want to attend. Not only will knowing your overall objective help you focus on what’s important, it will help you prepare and plan ahead of time.
Some common conference goals are: networking, learning new tools and ideas, seeing how other companies solve similar problems, and building your brand. Generally it’s a combination of all of these, so prioritizing will help you manage your energy and time. One way to prioritize is to study the schedule. Selecting which panels will be most beneficial should minimize the feeling of information overload when you’re at the conference. Keep in mind that sessions often run concurrently, so prioritizing can also keep you from double-booking.
Many conferences take place at a convention center attached to a hotel. Be smart and book your stay at the hotel where the conference is held. Not only is it more convenient, saving time and money on transportation, it allows more face time with attendees. Since the best networking often happens “off the clock” you don’t want to miss out on valuable opportunities.
Prepare Your Pitch
Some people call it an elevator pitch. The idea is that you have 30 seconds (or less) to sum up your story when meeting someone new. As anyone who’s tried to come up with a pitch on the fly knows, this is easier said than done.
It’s best to prepare (and practice) your pitch ahead of time to achieve perfection. Consider your personal brand. What do you want people to take away from meeting you? Try it out on your partner or co-workers ahead of time and aim for a nice balance of friendly and helpful, without being pushy or salesy.
Check the weather in your destination and dress to blend in. This may mean business casual, or hipster cool, depending on the industry. While conferences are generally less formal than work, you still want to look your best, whiles still being comfortable If you’re a presenter, however, be sure to dress better than usual.
And don’t forget to pack business cards. While some people (ie. Gens Y & Z) may think business cards are a relic of the past, they are quite convenient at conferences. Don’t be the attendee who has to scribble your email on a napkin while your competition has a slick card to leave behind.
More prep ideas: You’d be surprised how often the little things can come in handy, like breath mints, eye drops, and a comb in a pinch. Go by this motto: It’s better to have than to have not!
Always Be Networking
If you’re like most people, “networking” is one big motivation for going on the conference circuit. Luckily everyone else has the same goal, but don’t fall into these common traps. First is, talking to only people you know. Don’t use co-workers or friends as a crutch. Step out of your comfort zone and meet new faces. (Most people will be wearing name tags, so use this as you’re “in.”)
Networking takes practice! While you want to approach people you don’t know, you also don’t want to hover in the background like a weirdo, come on too strong, or act like a tongue-tied fan if you’re talking to a bigwig. Stay cool, know your pitch, and ask questions to show you’re more interested in others than yourself.
Also important: never underestimate the value of a quick exit strategy. If the conversation has gone on too long or isn’t going anywhere, then you will have a polite excuse to move on.
The key to effective networking is being approachable. A good strategy for looking approachable is to get off your device. People glued to their phones, tablets, or laptops aren’t sending proper social signals.
Pay attention to body language and facial expressions. If you’re closed off, with your arms crossed or a scowl, people will notice. Likewise, a warm smile can work wonders in a crowded conference room.
Write it Down
Think you’ll remember everything in an action-packed conference? Think again. Even if you have a great memory, you’ll need to take notes to remember it all.
Don’t limit your notes to conference panels, however. Notes can also be helpful when it comes to networking. Jotting down a few key details when you meet a new contact will help jog your memory later, as well as provide a convenient point-of-reference when you follow up. A simple mention of a mutual hobby you discussed, or a funny comment, will also help them remember you.
Go the Extra Mile
Conferences can be long and tiring, especially for introverts. However, when in Rome... Take advantage of the off-site activities planned around the conference, and drink some caffeine, instead of retiring to your hotel room at 6 pm.
Happy hours, after-hours parties, and meetups are great ways to keep the conversation going outside of the scheduled events. Since the best networking often happens casually, don’t miss out on these valuable opportunities to flex your schmoozing skills.
It should go without saying that after any conference, you must follow up. Don’t take those contacts you made for granted! Connecting on LinkedIn is a great way to solidify connections and stay top-of-mind.
Also, follow up on what you learned at the conference. Even if you don’t have to bring back a formal presentation of your takeaways, go over any notes so new ideas stay fresh. Many conferences will have their slide decks available afterwards, so take advantage of these resources. A few months down the road, when the conference is just a blur, you’ll appreciate having something tangible to reference.
How do you handle the hustle and bustle of industry conferences? What tips do you have to share about making the most of the conference experience?