Today I’m speaking in Grapevine, Texas for the National Association of Credit Management. Much of the article below originally appeared as an article I wrote for Business Credit, the February 2017 issue. Are you skilled at Conference Networking? What is your strategy?
Another conference or business meeting, you arrive, you go to the registration table, and wait patiently for your turn to watch the check-in person search for your name tag. You get a lanyard, maybe a sticker or two, some program materials, and a bag to carry your stuff around for the next few days. You have arrived.
What you do next will determine the amount of success you achieve from this event. Certainly you’ll intend to learn something, have some food, and meet a few people, but have you considered identifying specific goals? Have you mapped out what sessions you’ll attend, what you want to learn more about, or how many people you want to add to your network?
Have you thought about your social prowess, how you’ll connect and engage with people you might already know and especially how you’ll approach meeting someone new?
Some people argue that our society is becoming less social. They argue that the younger generations are more connected to their telephones or technology than actually building personal or professional relationships. What do you think?
I believe our definition of social is changing, I believe the depth and understanding of our professional relationships are changing, and I definitely believe that some people are taking full advantage of the opportunities presented by this changing environment and others are watching from the sidelines still trying to sort through what will become their next move.
I believe you have to get strategic.
Conferences and other live face-to-face events represent a wonderful opportunity to grow your network, but you probably won’t achieve much growth by only watching.
Let’s start at the beginning, what are your goals for the event? Yes, goals, I’m sure you’ve probably heard the meme, “what gets measured, gets done.” If you’re going to make the most of this opportunity you’re going to need a few goals, and you’re going to have to consider both strategy and tactics to accomplish them.
Here are a few things to consider:
- Number of new people to meet. You probably should have a number in mind. This can be as simple as two or three, or many multiples of that number. If you are going to be at an event for multiple days it probably is a good idea to have a daily goal.
- Strengthening relationships with past acquaintances. Whether you are a first timer at this event, or coming back for your fifth consecutive year it might be valuable to circle back to someone you’ve met in the past. This also applies to people who you might occasionally connect with on social media, through email, or by telephone, but often lack the opportunity for the face-to-face.
- Who can you help? While this might seem shocking, your intentions should include a focus on whom you can help. Too often people are only interested in meeting someone who can do something for them, and are not often considering what they can do for others. Make sure at least part, if not all of your outreach has an element of what you can do to help someone else. Your network will live, or not, by the principles connected with reciprocity.
- Leveraging opportunities. Most conferences have built-in social time. This might be centered on breaks between sessions, meals, or other scheduled activities. Don’t miss opportunities to choose a session seat near someone you don’t know, greet someone in the lobby or conference hallway, and choose areas to be present that will allow more opportunities.
- What is your message or elevator speech? Make sure you have a short; one to three sentence introduction and that you are prepared to use it. However, your best success will not come from your interest to tell someone else what you do. It will come from being very interested in what they do.
Get prepared to cover the basics and then take things to the next level. The basics would include wearing your name badge, keeping your head up, smiling, being interested and inviting, carrying business cards and using them, asking for business cards from others, and suggesting the idea of continuing your connection on social media channels.
Social Media Connections
Depending on your profession and how you use social media platforms you’ll find some people who are very shy and reserved about Facebook, it might be too personal. Twitter is a great platform for high activity social media users, but your best professional platform is probably going to be LinkedIn.
Allow me to provide a brief word about LinkedIn. LinkedIn is not a platform built just for job seekers. Sure there is an element of LinkedIn that supports that, but think of LinkedIn more like Facebook for professional connections. It is not Facebook and you shouldn’t be posting pictures of your vacation, your children or grandchildren, or your favorite pet, unless of course your business has a direct connection to these events or activities. Make sure you have a profile picture (one that actually looks like you), and that you have a reasonable amount of your profile completed.
Depending on the event you may be with many professionals of a similar age, in other cases it may be very diverse. Don’t let generational stereotypes, bias, or judgments negatively influence your ability to be effective with your outreach.
One of the stereotypes is that those persons representing the most recent generations are more into their smartphone and Snapchat than they are about meeting new people in person. Even if this stereotype seems true to you it could be all the more reason to make that outreach.
So often people become focused on generational differences when what they should be considering is generational commonalities. Your attendance at a conference is one of your best chances to increase and improve your network. Since your conference is most likely a live face-to-face event, use this opportunity to connect real-time. There are many things that all generations have in common; in this case the commonality is a focus on building and improving your network and relationships.
After the Conference
You’re not finished. You’ve survived, you’re excited, and your return trip gave you a few much needed minutes to unwind and digest some of the great content, strengthened relationships, and new found friends. Now what?
If you haven’t already done so, grab all of your business cards and make sure they make it into your contact management software, make the time to look up each and every one of them on LinkedIn or other channels, send personalized invitations to connect and follow up on any promises you made. If you suggested you would send them a link, do it, if you offered some additional information, send it, or if you suggested a follow-up telephone call schedule it.
You’ve made the investment, use a few minutes immediately following the event to collect your thoughts, debrief (yourself or others), and be sure you tie up any loose ends.
Make it Strategic
Practice makes perfect, but many professionals will only get to one or two major conferences per year. If this is you, you’re going to have to be sure that you are strategic in your approach. It’s far too easy to arrive at a conference, go through some of the motions, hit a few breakout sessions and exchange a business card or two from some chance encounter that you simply stumbled upon. Then you return home with only the memory of the person on the airplane who occupied half of your coach class seat, the speaker who made you laugh or cry, and the quality of the food in the buffet line.
You and your network are worth more than that.
Dennis E. Gilbert is a business consultant, speaker (CSPTM), and corporate trainer that specializes in helping businesses and individuals accelerate their leadership, their team, and their success. He is a four-time author and some of his work includes, Forgotten Respect, Navigating A Multigenerational Workforce and Pivot and Accelerate, The Next Move Is Yours! Reach him through his website at Dennis-Gilbert.com or by calling +1 646.546.5553.
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