Whether you’re new on the conference networking scene or a seasoned pro, use these networking tips to smash it at your next event.
“Networking is not about just connecting people. It’s about connecting people with people, people with ideas, and people with opportunities.” – Michele Jennae
A handful of the right networking tips can be the difference between a good conference experience and a great one. Stepping into a room full of strangers for the first time can be an intimidating experience, and networking at conferences is no different. Even if you’ve been around the association or academic conference block a few times, it doesn’t always come easy. But it’s one of the most important activities for professional development and knowledge sharing.
Ideally, the organisers of the events you attend should have a good idea of how to encourage networking at their conferences. But it never hurts to brush up before you head out. Luckily, there’s a whole collection of networking tips to help you round out the rough edges over time. Take a peek at this list and learn how to network like a pro before your next big event.
1. Do your homework on your potential network
If you’re reading this, you’ve already got a good start on this first networking tip. It can be easy to underestimate the amount of work and preparation that goes into effective networking at a conference. Before you head to an event, plan your networking strategies and take a look at the list of registered delegates. If there are specific people you hope to meet and connect with, prepare ahead of time by reading their latest work, social posts, and any news on the organisation they work for.
If a conference doesn’t have a list of expected attendees, do your best to scan the social media hashtags in advance to get an idea of who might be attending, and do some research on the speakers and exhibitors that will be present.
2. Design your schedule with networking in mind
When the conference releases its schedule of events, take a look at the timings and plan a personal schedule for yourself. Allow time for breaks and consider skipping a session to spend time hanging out in one of the event common areas with other attendees.
Check if the conference that you’re attending uses a mobile event app that allows for schedule personalisation. This can make choosing sessions and prepping for the conference much more efficient.
3. Prepare some conversation starters
Before you leave for the event (or even during your travel time), think of some conversation starters to use in a variety of different contexts. Learning how to network at a conference can be intimidating, but preparing yourself in advance can help shake off any nerves you may be feeling. Don’t worry about sounding scripted either. Brainstorming a list of questions to ask can make them sound more natural when you’re nervous and helps you avoid drawing a blank when you approach someone.
Some simple ones to start with: “Where are you from?” “What brings you to this conference?” “What sessions/speakers are you looking forward to most?” OR “Which ones did you enjoy?”
4. Refine your personal elevator pitch
What’s equally as important as prepping conversation starters? Planning your personal pitch. Have a think about the things that are most important for people to know about you and what they might be most interested in based on the context of the event you’re attending. If you’re networking at an academic conference, you may want to prepare a quick summary of your field of research and the reason you are attending the event. If you’re networking at an association conference with a mix of researchers, industry professionals, and exhibitors, you may want to prepare varied pitches for the different types of attendees you’ll meet. Regardless, keep this under 30 seconds. It should be information you can convey while standing in the line to get coffee.
5. Plan your exit strategy
A good close is the key to leaving a lasting and positive impression on the people you meet while networking at an event. But sometimes, you may find yourself in a conversation you wish you had never started or one that drags on and takes up valuable time you could be using to meet new people. Plan your exit strategy so you can politely leave a conversation if necessary. This networking tip from the Science of People comes as an easy-to-remember formula: “Genuine compliment + Follow-up Item + Handshake = Lasting Impression.”
6. Get in the first word, not the last
Once you’ve prepared to attend an event and done your networking research, consider reaching out to key contacts you’d like to meet in advance. Follow them on LinkedIn or Twitter and introduce yourself, saying that you’re looking forward to meeting them at the conference. This increases the chances of them striking up a conversation with you in person, and makes a positive first impression that shows your genuine interest in them.
Later, when it comes time to meet people, focus on listening more than talking. Frame the discussion around what the other person seems interested in and think about what you can offer to that person. Avoid the temptation to convince people that you’re an interesting and valuable contact during the first meet-ups. This often leads to you doing most of the talking – which doesn’t give a great impression and reduces the information you can gain for developing these relationships in the future.
7. Network on the conference app
It’s a good idea to reach out ahead of time, and one effective way to do this can be through the conference mobile app. If the event you’re attending is your association’s annual meeting or an international academic conference, they’ll likely have one available for download well in advance of the actual start date. If so, put some work into using it to connect with fellow attendees. Check if the app has any useful networking features to help you before and during the days of the event.
8. Beware of the buddy system
Networking at a conference with a bunch of strangers can be intimidating. And it can feel more comfortable to attend an event with someone you know (or stick with someone you met at lunch on the very first day). But hiding in this comfort zone limits your opportunities to network and make a diverse range of contacts. Try going to the occasional event solo. Or, if you’re attending with a group of colleagues, plan time to branch off and explore alone.
9. Don’t beat yourself up for making networking blunders
Forging out on your own can provide plenty of opportunities…but if it’s your first time attending an academic conference, you may be nervous about making a mess of a networking opportunity. Don’t worry. Even the pros mess up sometimes. We’ve heard everything from mistaking the keynote speaker for one of the venue staff, to calling a co-author by the wrong name during an important introduction. Everyone makes mistakes, and as socially horrifying as they may seem in the moment, they’ll make for funny (and relatable) stories later on. Who knows? They could even become your go-to conversation starter at the next event you attend.
10. Boost your confidence at the exhibitor booths
If you’re at an event for the first time (or on your own) and are having trouble getting into the networking zone, stop by the exhibitor booths and have a chat with some of the people there. They are generally friendly and happy to chat, which makes this a great way to warm up your conversational chops. Plus, you’re bound to learn some useful information and snag a few free chocolates or pens along the way.
11. Use conference badges to your advantage
One of the handiest networking tips is to use conference badges to their full advantage. Name, job title, organisation – all the key information you need to put your conversation into context is right there. And, if you’re lucky, the event organisers will have put some thought into a top-notch conference badge design to make networking easier for you. Use this tool to your advantage at every conference, even if it’s simply to help you remember names.
12. Repeat names out loud to help you remember them
At the same time as you plan your exit strategy, you should also make a plan to repeat the names you hear. Before you leave a conversation, make sure you use the person’s name to reinforce your memory of it. A simple “Talk to you later [Name]” or “Well [Name], it was great meeting you.” will do. If they haven’t offered their name yet, you can say something like: “Actually, before I go, I didn’t catch your name. What was it?” before you part ways. Being interested in someone’s name and saying it out loud is one of many quick tips for networking and making a good impression.
13. Take advantage of idle time
One of the most valuable conference networking tips is to take advantage of those fleeting moments between main events. Capitalise on these moments. If you have time sitting in a session before the first presenter speaks, chat to someone sitting next to you. If you’re waiting in a line-up for food or coffee, ask the person behind you how their day is going. Many people automatically resort to their phones to pass this time, but they’re often sacrificing valuable interactions as a result.
14. Overlap your personal and social networks
Now, I’m not saying to completely forget about your mobile phone. Like anything, it can be a handy networking tool when used in moderation. Easy access to social networks and event apps help promote a smooth networking experience that bridges the gap between the digital and physical worlds.
So, follow the conference hashtags on Twitter, participate in conference discussions, follow new contacts on LinkedIn and browse through them all each night after the events of the day are over. You may realise later that you have more in common with someone than you first thought.
15. Get on the guest lists for conference social events
Arguably, the easiest place to network during a conference is at one of the many social events. If the conference you plan to attend has a list of these special events, be sure to select at least a few that you plan to attend (and RSVP early to the more popular ones to ensure you have a spot). It can be tempting to hide in your hotel room after a full day at the conference. But you’ll miss out on top-notch networking opportunities if you skip the social events.
Networking pro-tip: Be cautious of relying too much on liquid courage to boost your confidence. A drink or two can help you relax, but take care to manage your alcohol consumption and keep your head straight during a professional night out.
16. Bring business cards (but don’t rely on them)
Business cards are an old reliable in the networking tip toolbox, and it’ll be a long time before they go out of style. Put some thought into yours and make sure you print enough cards to last you the entire event. Include basic information like your name, organisation, and email. Also, consider adding your social information and a photo to make it easier for others to remember you and keep in touch.
But be cautious of falling into the business card trap (i.e. robotically passing on your details without engaging in truly valuable networking). Attempt to strike up a genuine conversation first. Then, if someone doesn’t have the time or has to move on before the conversation has finished, you can exchange cards and plan to get in touch later.
17. Keep a business card bank (and cash it in later)
Continuing on the business card buzz, you’ll likely receive A LOT of cards (and learn mountains of information about the people who gave you those cards). So, keep yourself organised and keep notes. A solid networking tip is to use a business card app to electronically store and manage your growing collection.
If possible, make notes alongside each card about the interactions you had with that person and the next action you should take to develop the relationship. Did you promise to send them something? Call them? Add them on LinkedIn? Did they tell you their preferred method of contact? Make these follow up notes as soon as possible. It’s much easier to think of the best approach while your memory is fresh, rather than a week later when all the information is mixed together or faded from recall.
18. Form mutually beneficial relationships
One of the biggest mistakes that people make when networking is approaching it with a “get” attitude, as opposed to a “give” attitude. If you’re constantly searching for what people have to offer you without thinking about what you can offer them, they may perceive your interaction as less than genuine. If you approach an event with the desire to help people, others will recognise that and be more inclined to offer you help in return.
19. Maintain your old connections too
Now, all this discussion about meeting new people and networking in a conference full of strangers doesn’t apply to every case. In fact, more often than not, you’ll find yourself at an event with at least a few familiar faces from other events or work you’ve done before. The most valuable networking isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality. Maintain relationships with the contacts you make over time and focus on making friends, not just contacts.
20. Make introductions among your network
Once you’ve grown your network and met a diverse group of people, one of the most rewarding benefits is the ability to introduce people across networks. If you know two researchers who would benefit from discussing their theories, or a group of fellow members who could learn from each other’s work, connect them. People will appreciate that you have them in mind for more than just your own interests and are likely to return the favour, causing your network to grow organically.
21. Know your networking limits
If this list of networking tips leaves you feeling overwhelmed at the thought of so much human interaction, you’re not alone. While it’s important to take advantage of the short window of time you have during a conference, don’t stretch yourself too thin. Remember to take breaks, and if you need some extra support consider this list of tips for introverted attendees who want to up their conference networking game.
22. Keep networking after the conference ends
Networking doesn’t end when the event does. Some of the most important conversations and opportunities occur long after the doors of the venue close. So, follow-up with each person you met at the conference and don’t leave it too long. A simple thank you and inquiry into how the event went for them is enough to keep your name fresh in their mind. If you have the time and want to go a step further, send on an article you think would interest them. Later on, when the time comes that you need something from them, they’ll be much more likely to respond.
23. Finally… don’t be afraid of a little self-promotion
Figuring out how to promote yourself in a way that fits the context of a conversation is one of the toughest networking tips to master. Primarily because we’re often uncomfortable with self-promotion. It’s important to keep the “giving” attitude while networking, but if you fail to promote yourself, you won’t reap the benefits of all your hard work. You know best what you have to offer, so put it out there with confidence.
Found these networking tips helpful?
Pass these tips on to someone who needs to up their networking game (or share them on social media). And if you’re interested, take a peek at Ex Ordo. We’re a small company with big dreams and our intelligent conference software powers academic, association, and non-profit conferences around the globe.