Last month I had the opportunity to attend an industry conference with over 13,000 people from all around the world. At a time in my career where things felt a little too settled, I was excited for some new information, ideas and contacts. I have to be honest, though, with the excitement came no small amount of trepidation. I was attending the conference all by myself, so unless I was content to spend the week on my own, I would need to network. For me, networking is about as fun as a trip to the dentist so I decided to research a few expert networking tips (Thank you robbie samuels), try them out and report back on how it went. Here’s what I learned:
1. Stand in Line
Yes, you read that correctly. Stand in line as much as you possibly can. You will be in close proximity to other people that will be just as bored as you and likely ready to start chatting about how bored they are. Without even trying, you have a shared experience! To be honest I was pretty skeptical about this one, but it was my most successful tactic. Once I realized how easy it was to move beyond complaining about the line into more meaningful conversation, I found myself with invitations to happy hour, dinner, follow-up conversations and more.
2. Is this seat taken?
If your goal is to meet new people, do NOT choose a chair surrounded by a sea of empty seats. I know this goes against the grain of social norms, but it is worth it. In my first session, I did what I (and most people) typically do—found a seat with a comfortable number of open seats between me and any another person. I left that session without speaking to anyone. The next session, although there were over 100 chairs and only two people in the room when I arrived, I chose to sit right next to one poor, unsuspecting soul. She and I chatted, paired up during the active participation, and met for happy hour later that afternoon. We’re now connected on LinkedIn and I believe this is a weak connection that both she and I can utilize in the future. (To learn about weak connections and why they are so great, check out this Podcast from Dave Stachowiak at Coaching for Leaders).
3. Table for one?
Do everything in your power to avoid sitting at a table for one. This conference made it easy and coordinated meal meet-ups. Definitely take advantage of any pre-arranged networking and dining activities. I found that sharing a meal provided an opportunity to make deeper connections and opened people up to discuss things that matter. It’s in these conversations that you can determine how to be of service to the people you’re with. This information is networking gold! Even without the coordinated meet ups I made sure to avoid eating alone. I invited myself to sit down at tables with other people wearing the conference name badge or made plans to meet with someone I networked with earlier in the day. If you want to take this strategy to the next level, research a great restaurant and make a reservation for ten. Then start inviting people you meet during the day to dinner. I love this idea because you’re able to provide something of value at the start of your relationship.
4. Drop it (your phone) like it’s hot
I didn’t think this one would be hard, as I’m not attached to my smart phone 24/7 the way some people are. I was wrong. Sitting around with nothing to do and waiting for a flesh-and-blood human to engage can be excruciating. Here is the bitter truth, though: our smart phones, tablets, and computers are connection blockers. Keeping my phone in my bag during the conference allowed me to be truly present. I was available to people who wanted to network and I got more out of the conference. Just put the gadgets away! (You’ll thank me later).
5. Follow up
Before the conference, I assumed I would collect a nice stack of business cards and search for each person on LinkedIn after getting back to real life. That’s a great start, but I learned that you can follow up in more impactful ways. One of the first sessions I attended was with speaker Marjorie Brody on the topic of personal branding. (To learn more about the great work she does, check out her website BrodyPro.com). I felt so empowered after the session I decided to email her and ask if she would talk with me one-on-one. Reaching out to her felt like a risk. I was certain my request would be met with no response or, worse yet, rejection. But here’s the thing: when people love what they do, they usually want to help if they can. In no time Marjorie replied and offered to meet with me. Not only did I get to learn more from her, I made a connection and gained an advocate.
Looking back, none of these networking tips seem that “experimental”, especially given how successful they were! I assumed I would try some networking strategies that would turn out to be utter failures. Instead, I was refreshed to discover that most people are kind, and If you show up in an authentic way, they will be open to connection.. By embracing the opportunity to network, I was able to experience what so many incredible people had to offer and left the conference with much more than a bump in my LinkedIn connections.