Hacking Conferences — Top 10 Conference Networking Tips

Going to the right conferences will do more for your career than an extra degree ever will.

Despite this, so few people take advantage of them. They would rather drop $50K on another masters than $500 to hear an expert speak. (Learn more about how to find your purpose without going into debt).

In fact, outside of highly technical professions, isn’t a degree just an opportunity to meet smart people in class, work with them in clubs, and connect with recruiters at job fairs(mini-conferences)? We routinely hear that graduate school’s real value is based on the network you build rather than the classes you attend.

Why not cut out the foreplay and get right to main event?

1. Choose The Right Conferences

Conferences are expensive. You have to pay for travel, hotels, dinners, and then there’s the conference itself. Additionally, conferences require a large time commitment as the good ones usually require travel and may even burn valuable vacation time if it’s not work sponsored.

Consequently, you must be very selective with the conferences you will be attending over the next few months. Most people by default automatically pick the largest and “best” conferences, but I will explain why that’s a terrible idea.

These larger conferences are often too packed to get any real relationship building done. Because there are so many sessions, your time will be divided thin. Even worse is that you may only run into people once or twice throughout the entire weekend which doesn’t assist in the relationship building that is so valuable with attending these events.

“Sociologists discovered there are three ingredients crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other,” –NY Times 

That’s why I recommend avoiding those large smorgasbord events and instead pick highly targeted conferences in your industry. You know you picked a good conference when the speaker is highly respected but only 150 people are attending. This also has a deep physiological reasoning hinging on Dunbar’s number — the suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. Dunbar determined that as primate brain size increased, so did their social circle capping at Humans with 150 people. As new ones entered, other people would fall out. Social media has made it easier to stay connected to larger group of people but evolutionarily we still struggle to maintain more than 150 “close” friends.

This creates a communal effect on the weekend and allows a much deeper connection with the attendees. Additionally, those attending tend be highly passionate about the subject and therefore more likely to make interesting friends as opposed to larger conferences where the interests are much more varied

Once you’ve identified the right event, make it clear why you’re attending. Conferences are not the place to find yourself. Come with a clear purpose.

If you are clear with your purpose and make it clear throughout the weekend you will attract much more success than if you’re the guy at the conference who isn’t sure why he’s there.

2. Create A Twitter List

A week before the conference, find all the attendees twitter handles (the conference organizer may have this) or simply use your virtual assistant to track the hashtag and add anyone who uses it. Refine the list and eliminate people who aren’t tweeting primarily in english, auto-tweeting(spamming) old blog posts, or self-promoting too much. This creates a highly curated list of attendees that you and attendees can use to “meet” other attendees before the event. I do this at every event and it’s always a huge hit.

 

 

3. Help Out The Organizer

As someone who has organized countless events, let me tell you that it is a stressful, messy, but beautiful job. You are directing people, serving as customer support, directing traffic, ordering food, managing speaker riders, smiling for the cameras, fixing inevitable day-of disasters, all while exuding the calm of a duck on water. Trust me, the event organizer needs help. Shoot her an email before the event and volunteer to assist in taking care of writing the invitations, managing the food, ordering the swag, or finding a selection of center pieces for the organizer to pick from. She will greatly appreciate the help and it’s even gotten me invited to the private speaker’s dinner before. Regardless you should offer your help because they deserve it for putting together a great event. Just don’t get suckered into volunteer duties that take you away from the event itself as you’re ultimately there to learn. You can’t do that when you’re outside the ballroom directing parking. Protip: If you’re a broke college student, volunteering is your free ride to the event. You will be working hard, but at least you’re in the building and may have a chance to catch a speech or two.

4. Elevate Small Talk

One of the most nerve wracking skills you must learn is how to cold introduce yourself. A conference is a great place to get over your fear because cold introductions are expected. All you must do is find someone who is either actively engaged in a conversation or standing by themselves (avoid introducing yourself to people sitting down as that is awkward) approach them at a 45 degree angle (from the front), wait until they make eye contact and then simply smile, extend your hand and say “Hello.”   That’s it. I guarantee you they will shake your hand and smile back.   Then you can break the ice by asking any myriad of questions including:

“What brings you to this conference?”

“How are you enjoying the conference so far?”

“What has been your favorite speech so far?”

This is a natural segue to what I call Medium Talk 101 Technique— the WARD technique:

 

Work: ask where they work. What do they do? What does their team do?
Area: What area do they live? Are they born and raised there? Where is their family from. People love to talk about their family history.
Relationships: Do you have any family in the area? This is how you find out about kids and spouses without being too forward. Get someone to talk about their work, they might remember you. Ask someone about their kids and they’ll remember you forever.
Dreams: Where do you see yourself in 5 years? In the same company or city? What problems are you currently facing? Talk to me.

 

These 4 areas naturally escalate the conversation into more intimate topics. It circumvents the issue of getting stuck on talking about the weather and gets into really deep conversation topics and allows you to find something in common between the two of you. Humans of New York is excellent at this.   This also works incredibly well during lunch time where sitting at the right table is key. Food has an incredible way of really connecting people. Dan and Ian talk about this on the Tropical MBA Podcast – “Getting More Out of Conferences – Breakfast is a Big Deal”.

I’ve made some of my biggest connections when talking to people over a meal so make sure you take advantage during conference meals and don’t leave your seat to chance.   I remember going to an ALPFA conference with one of my friends and instead of sitting with our classmates which would have been easy, we sat at a table with seasoned professionals. Turns out one of the individuals was a partner at a respected firm and she was able to parlay that conversation into an internship at the firm the following summer.   Stop getting stuck on small talk and make a connection.

What if you get stuck in a boring conversation?

You can bail by simply saying

“well it was nice meeting you. I’m sure we’ll run into each other throughout the weekend” or  “Do you know where the bathroom is? Perfect, thanks. It was a pleasure meeting you. Let’s chat again soon.”

Remember Names   You’ll also notice that I didn’t ask for their name at any point in the conversation. That is because you should wait until you’re sure this is a relationship you want to pursue. Introductions before conversations tend to be forgettable by nature as half the people are you talk to, you may not talk to again. If you ask everyone for their name, you will have too much information to remember throughout the weekend.   I won’t spend too much time on this as I’ve already discussed this intensively on my article: How to Remember Names, but this definitely deserves a mention. Briefly, the main points include:

1.) Recognize they even said their name. You have to train yourself to perk up when a name is mentioned and not let it pass unnoticed. Practicing on movies and tv shows is a great way to do that.

2.) Associate their face with someone else with the same name. If his name is Chris, remember your best friend Chris from elementary school and picture the two of them doing something crazy together like both Chris’s getting into a fencing duel in the middle of the conference culminating in a riveting stalemate on stage (bet you won’t forget that). This creates a story in your head which is much easier to remember than the random jumbling of symbols and noises we call names.

3.) Use their name again during the conversation and one last time when ending the conversation. Remember the last time someone you respected used your name in conversation? How that that made you feel? You can recreate that same feeling in every conversation you have simply by using someone’s name sincerely.

4.) You can also pull out your phone and ask them to spell their name for you and add it to your conference notes in your phone. This way you can refer to it later if forget. Tell them you’re doing this for all the interesting people you meet that you want to stay close with. They’ll be flattered. Fanoosh did this on me and I thought it was very thoughtful.

If you do this, you’ll be the person who remembers key name instead of the douche who keeps saying “what was your name again?” Lastly, make meaningful eye contact. There is nothing worse than someone who’s scanning a room during a conversation. Be present.   Look at this video of Bill Clinton using eye contact to make a real connection. Politics aside, he wins this debate for his ability to show he cares, not for his political ideas.

Use Confidence To Attract and Vulnerability to Endear.

This advice falls under a premise I strongly believe in but never understood until Derek Sivers crystalized it for me at the recent DCBKK conference:  “Assume You’re Below Average and It’s All Luck.” How would you approach conversations if everyone was smarter than you? Would you listen more? Would you ask more questions? Would you stop thinking about what to say next? It all boils down to living your life as an eternal student. Stop asking yourself “How can I impress this person?” but “How can I learn from this person.”   If you do this you will know someones hopes, dreams, and fears much more intimately.

You can use this knowledge to help them by introducing them to an expert , telling them about a cool website, or emailing them a relevant article (avoid recommending books as anyone smart already has 150 books in their queue). You will be remembered much more fondly than if you had just spent the entire time dominating the conversation and often the individual will be motivated to follow up with you.

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” – Dale Carnegie

Stop Giving Advice. Kind Of. Look I know you’re brilliant and you want to share your brilliance with the world. Anytime someone mentions a problem, you immediately offer your advice on how to fix it.   Stop doing that.   Who are you to immediately offer a solution after knowing somebody’s problem after only a minute of conversation? It’s arrogant and off-putting. Instead, listen intently and ask really interesting questions. Questions that only you would know because you’re brilliant and already know the problem intimately.

Often this uncovers how much the individual knows about the problem and how much research they’ve actually devoted to the issue. It’s possible they’ve already tried your solution and it didn’t work due to their unique circumstances. Additionally, as a side-effect of your Aristotelean inquiries, you begin to reveal that you may actually know what you’re talking about.

When your deep penetrating and insightful questions, you set yourself up for the best way to give advice: phrasing it in the form of historical experience.  

When you can start advice with “Here’s what happened to me” vs. “Here’s what you should do” it comes from a place of humility and experience. Something is much more likely to be well received.

5. Meet The Speakers Early

Outside of the keynote speaker, there are often several speakers throughout the weekend. Try your best and research these individuals prior to the event. Follow them on twitter, read their blogs, and even shoot them an email. This way when you show up to the event, you already have some background rapport you can use to introduce yourself.   It is important that you introduce yourself early as speakers are often alone or in small groups before they hit the stage, but after they usually become demi-celebrities mobbed by their newly acquired fans. If you can develop a relationship prior to them hitting the stage, you stand a much better chance of standing out and being remembered than navigating the phalanx of backs after their talk.  

Better yet, be a speaker. It is nerve wracking but being a speaker instantly increases your credibility at the event and study after study shows that the more speeches one gives, the higher their influence. Put yourself out there. You can probably do a better job than half the people speaking anyway.

6. Introduce People To Each Other

Once you’ve met a few interesting people at the event, help them reach their goals. The smartest people are constantly getting asked for advice. Very few will be asking them about the problems they are facing — whether they are hiring and scaling their team, legal worries, marketing budgets, etc, your goal is to listen closely to their problems so you can find ways to help them. This will usually come in the form of introductions to other VIPs.

“So your business is obviously very successful but I was wondering what issues are you currently facing that are keeping you up at night?

“Hmm, good question. I’m actually in the process of increasing my Facebook advertising budget but I’m having trouble navigating the interface.”

“Have you talked to Jon? He’s speaking tomorrow on PPC campaigns and FaceBook is his specialty.”

“No, I haven’t. That’s actually a really good idea!”

“He’s actually right there, let me go introduce.”

Boom. You just solved one of her biggest problems and introduced two VIPs to each other. The VIPs will appreciate the break of talking to someone of their equal at the conference and will now remember it for more than just a speaking gig, but actually a conference that helped them solve their goals as well. And they’ll remember you for helping to facilitate that.   Another pro tip is to invite your friend (or someone you would like to meet) that lives in the city to drop in for dinner or one of the keynote speeches. This is much better than simply meeting for coffee alone.

7. Ask For Introductions

Another technique you can use is asking “Who should I meet?” While conferences are prime locations for cold introductions, a warm introduction is even better. Now when you introduce yourself you can say “Jessica actually recommended I talk to you because of xyz” and you have an instant mutual connection. Also don’t forget to follow up with the original recommender and let them know how the conversation went.

8. Arrange Dinners

People at conferences are usually so busy throughout the day, they rarely have time to plan dinner beyond ordering room service. Take advantage of this and arrange a dinner at a nice, nearby spot that is ideally walking distance from the hotel. As you’re talking to people, casually drop that you’re hosting a small dinner tomorrow if they’re interested in attending. This is your chance to bring together the most interesting people from the conference in a much more intimate setting. If you want to turn contacts into friends, you need a minimum of two face-to-face meetings out of the office.

9. Use Social Media To Your Advantage

Use #Hashtags   If the event has a hashtag, be sure to use it. Quote speeches, send out cool photos, and use your twitter list to dominate the engagement of the event. You have 150 other attendees monitoring the twitter list and retweeting things they think would be cool to their audience as well. You have a built in viral hub centered around that hashtag. Some of my most retweeted content has been through hashtags. Use it wisely and I dare you to try and leave the conference without a dozen new high quality followers.  

Take Awesome Photos   On that same vain, share awesome photos of the conference, the speakers, and the city you are in. Instagram is your friend here with those magical filters that make everything look cooler. Pictures get a lot more engagement than words so use them to your advantage. Get hilarious photos of the speakers, pictures of key slides, and after conference dinners on social media. This will increase engagement with your content and make you stand out as the person to meet at the conference.   Lastly, if you take great photos, when you make it home you can email key contacts with a quick hello and a great photo of them attached. Who couldn’t respond to that?

10. Leave The Business Cards At Home

My last tip comes from Peter Shankman. Don’t be a business card ninja. Don’t tuck and roll into a conference, throw out your business cards like ninja stars, and escape into the dead of night. In fact, leave your business cards at home.   If someone isn’t willing to add you on FaceBook, Twitter, of LinkedIn, you didn’t make enough of an impression and have to tweak your approach.

I recently met Mads Singers and he was giving me tons of advice on how to hire and scale my team. As someone who has hired over 2,000 people he had a wealth of knowledge to bestow on me and I couldn’t wait to stay connected with him. I asked him for his business card and he drops this liner on me:  

“Sorry, fresh out. They must have been popular.”  

How awesome is that? He’s letting me know how valued he has been at the conference and I couldn’t let him get away. I immediately bookmarked his website and actually just enlisted his services this morning.   Use this same technique as a barometer of how strong your engagement is. 1 new friend is better than 100 empty business cards.

That should be your only measure of success at a conference.   In this digital age where everyone is a tweet away it’s easy to forget that nothing can replace human warmth, a smile, and a handshake.   If you follow these 10 tips you will extract the maximum value from the conference, meet a ton of new interesting people, and hopefully walk away with a couple new lifelong friends.

Going to the right conferences will do more for your career than an extra degree ever will. Budget For Them.


GIVEAWAY!

As inspiration for this blog post, I am giving away one of the best books I’ve read on networking – “Never Eat Alone” – Building Relationships One At A time. It is an incredible book that goes through tips and techniques of how to increase your network. It is a must read for those early in thier career when mentors, peer connections, and your personal network are so important to building your professional development. If you haven’t read this book, enter below! 

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