No matter what industry or professional association I have been affiliated with, I have heard this refrain: "best thing about the conference was the networking". While we hope to be inspired and informed by the sages on the stages, by colleagues on panels and or by well known speakers–it rarely happens. Truth is our needs as a conferee are unique. We represent organizations that are different sizes and shapes and in different ages and stages of development. So it is no surprise that the "general sessions" of a conference never quite meet our needs.
It is It the hallway conversations and informal exchanges that often yield the most value. "Networking" becomes the best source to answer questions, get recommendations, learn new and different ways of doing business that APPLY to our circumstances. Meeting colleagues from across the state or country also gives you resources that you can tap into later. Most important, networking can be fun. Meeting different and new people who care about the same things with interesting perspectives strengthens your sense of belonging to your professional community of work.
So if you don't actively network at the conference, save some money, time and angst–stay home.
The best networking and the easiest networking is at conferences. Conferences bring us together so that we can literally get out of our boxes, reflect on our roles, challenges, and opportunities and ultimately get injected with a bit of new fuel to keep our motors running.
Funny thing, is while "networking" is the consensus greatest benefit from conferences, only a small subset of the attendees develop and execute a networking plan—except the vendors and exhibitors 😉
You have to remember to stick your hand out and introduce yourself. You are in warm and safe waters. Jump into the conference networking pool with both feet!
For non-profit industries and conferences there is a huge advantage and difference from the for-profit world. Many years ago I was on the national board of CASE, the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. When I first learned about CASE, I asked a colleague what it stood for. He told me, "Copy And Steal Everything!" I laughed, but realized quickly that in non-profit land we really were not competitors that had secrets. In fact it was the exact opposite, if you asked people they would give you everything. I learned that if you reciprocated in sharing, people would open up their minds and their hard drives! One of many reasons I have returned to the non-profit world.
Let's assume you are reading the trade publications, you follow the industry trends, you know who the leaders are (both individual and organizational), and of course you know well what you and your organization needs. And you are not one of these conferees who just goes to "see what happens." As in everything, "Failing to prepare is preparing to fail, as Coach Wooden would say.
Here are a few tips on how to maximize the networking benefit from your next conference:
- Shopping list: Write down a menu of items you are shopping for. Things you need to understand better. Trends you want to learn about. Solutions to challenges you face. Use this menu to evaluate your session attendance. Evaluate this list while at the conference and certainly when you return.
- Your BIT: Your brief introductory talk–your BIT–how you introduce yourself matters. Yes, name rank and serial number, but it could also include your needs and interests. For example, "Hi I am so and so from such and such." (firm shake hand and smile) "What were you hoping to get from this conference?" "I am really trying to find out who could help me with (subject), do you have any suggestions?" At the very least it will start a conversation. Engaging people in your quest and listening to theirs is always beneficial.
- Help others: The copy and steal everything world for non-profits or the sharing of great insights in for-profit circles only works if you reciprocate. You share and others will. The marketplace of meaningful networking exchanges depends on your willingness to assist.
- Benevolent stalking: These are thought leaders, innovators, achievers, or just plain interesting people you want to meet and or pick their brains. First, are these folks speaking/presenting? Who do you know who knows them? Ideally you would introduce yourself BEFORE the conference through a colleague or even a cold e-mail, to say you want to connect at the conference. You will be surprised how few people do this kind of prep and how receptive people are even to coldish e-mail intros. So you might even attend a session where the topic is less interesting than the speakers to hear what they have to say and possibly connect before or after they speak.
- Out of your comfort zone: Don't just mingle with your colleagues from your shop or people you already know. While there will always be benefits from that type of easy socializing, you could do that at other times. Meet people at every session you attend. Meet people at every event. Don't get so caught up in your list and menu that you don't connect with the person next to you. Make it a point to meet new and different people along the way.
- Take notes:Write down the names of people you meet and what was discussed or promised. Use the business card as your notecard or your smartphone to record a few words to jog your memory. Nothing worse than a pocket full of cards you don't recall. I refer to this as the cardboard network!
- Three foot networking: Meet anyone within 3 feet of you! I have learned over and over and over again, that you don't know who you are standing or sitting next to. Greet people, say hello and introduce yourself. Serendipity is powerful. Remember the object is not quantity it is always quality. Take some time to listen and connect. And if you click or find some commonality, you can reconnect later.
- Follow-up: Don't just collect cards and file them. Inevitably you promise people you will send them things. Others made promises to you. You heard several great speakers that piqued your interest and you could contact them to chat or get more info. You met a few interesting and nice people with whom you hope to stay connected. Send them a quick e-mail note. Do all of this in the first day or so when you return, before the work world you left gets its revenge!
So yes, conferences are great places to network, IF you network! If you do a little planning, focus on your needs, help others, and also push yourself to make connections, then the conference will deliver on its networking promise.
Thanks for reading. John