How to network at a conference

Striking up conversations with strangers can be difficult but the conference itself means that there is already professional common ground and subjects to discuss.

Industry conferences can be enjoyable and valuable for making new contacts and discovering insights into your own profession. Here are a few tips and tricks to make the most of your networking opportunities at a conference.

The business world often seems so crowded with email, social media and interactive platforms that the value of personal contact can be forgotten. Handshakes and conversations remain the key to developing a network of connections that underpin a healthy business and a good life, and industry events are an ideal place to start.

“Conferences and trade events are like a showcase of potential people to meet and collaborate with,” says business coach and author Jen Harwood

“They provide the opening stage of networking where you can be introduced to lots of people and, in personal conversations, identify the people you would like to know more about.”

Find common ground

Jen HarwoodHarwood identifies the right mindset as a crucial first step. If the networking process is approached with judgement, bias and dread, connecting with people is going to be awkward.

Striking up conversations with strangers can be difficult but the conference itself means that there is already professional common ground and subjects to discuss.

“If you want to break the ice you can ask a question like, ‘how are you finding the conference so far?’” she says. 

“Let them answer and then introduce yourself. You should maintain eye contact and keep the conversation flowing.”

Plan and prepare

Planning can be valuable, particularly with large conferences which have a range of events happening simultaneously. Identifying the events most likely to attract delegates with interests similar to your own narrows the field to the most relevant people.

Some conferences publish a list of registrants in advance, along with their positions. A useful idea is to identify about five people you would especially like to connect with, and perhaps even send an introductory email prior to the event.

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“You don’t want to feel overwhelmed by the number of people there,” says Harwood.

“The best time for networking is before the event starts, during the breaks, and the drinks session or dinner afterwards. People are more relaxed, chatty and open to conversation.

“A common mistake is to immediately dive into a deep conversation. Remember, however, that small talk is important. It is a little dance between two people to see if they like each other, share the same values and feel safe with each other. 

“If you want deep and genuine connections, dance with small talk first.”

Join in panel discussions

Michelle ChristieMichelle Christie, associate director of recruitment consultancy firm Robert Walters, agrees on the value of forethought.

“Do not go to an event or join a forum aimlessly,” she says. “Remember that your overall goal is to meet professionals that can help you and vice versa.”

She also underlines the value of participating in panel discussions and other conference events as an aspect of networking, noting that whether you are new to an industry or not, getting your name out there is important. Establishing a profile, she believes, will show up in the bottom line.

The critical networking activity, however, is one-on-one contact.

“You need to be articulate, concise and enthusiastic about what you do. It’s all about balance so remember to listen and ask questions when engaging in conversation,” she says.

“Speak with as many people as you can at a networking function. Establish the basics and arrange another time to have a more detailed discussion so you are not using all of your time talking to only a few people. You’re not going to remember everyone’s name, so it’s important you initiate the exchange of business cards before the conversation is over.”

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Follow-up opportunities

Harwood emphasises the importance of follow-up. A week after the conference is usually appropriate, and if a time and place for a subsequent meeting can be established immediately, so much the better. If not, then a follow-up email soon after the end of the conference might be suitable. 

Harwood says, however, that you should only give your business card to someone who wants one, and is willing to give you their own.

Christie suggests that the follow-up channel you use to connect should depend on the importance of the contact to you and your overall goal.

“Phone and email are the most personal, followed by a professional networking site such as LinkedIn if the contact is someone you’d like to have in your wider network,” she notes.

“However you do it, it should be within a couple of days of the first meeting.”

There are a few people who are natural networkers, but the reality is that for most people it is a skill that has to be learned. Planning and preparation are useful but the most important ingredient is practice.

“It’s a matter of building the skills and the confidence,” Harwood says. “So go and do it. Show up to every event, and practise. You won’t get better at networking if you stay at home or in the office.”

7 key tips for effective networking

  • Decide what parts of an event are most likely to draw potential contacts
  • In making initial contact, lead with small talk
  • Be concise and enthusiastic when explaining what you do
  • Actively listen to what others are saying
  • Provide business cards only when there is mutual interest
  • Take appropriate follow-up steps soon after the event
  • Recognise that networking takes practice, practice and more practice

Read next: 5 tips to get best value from an industry conference

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