Top tips on conference networking

We all know the advice - networking is essential for career success - yet most people ignore, avoid or refuse to believe it! So if business leaders consistently say it must be done - what is the best way to go about it?

If you are at the start of your career, and new to networking, I am going to share advice that I have collated, and practiced, from personal mentors and experienced networkers. This will help you overcome any fear you might have and learn how to enjoy networking!

Before I list my top tips for professional networking at a conference however, I must point out that a) most of us network informally all the time and b) it can be enjoyable.

Who do you want to meet - and why?

Before you attend an event you need to decide what your purpose is for networking. Do you want to develop knowledge, open up career opportunities and / or build a network that you can share?

Next, you need to identify people who are a) the experts in your field and b) have good network of potential contacts. For some formal events you may get a guest list before the day. Scan the list and highlight ‘people of interest’. You may not get to meet them but it will raise your awareness of key people in your industry

Make a plan

So, you are going to a conference and want to test your networking muscles. To be effective you must plan ahead. Ask yourself how many useful contacts you want to meet and set a management target. I recommend 3-5 for a full day event - this should be achievable on the day and make sure you have enough time for your follow-up activity.

Get ready

Before the event check that you have enough business cards (if your employer does not provide them you might want to invest in your own: check out moo.com or zazzle.com). Make sure you have a pen handy so you can make notes on the back of their card (either an action or a memorable comment to make it easy to recall the conversation).

You should also prepare your “message” so that when you meet someone you have something interesting to say. Think about why you are at the event; what you have worked on recently that is worth talking about; what your is company doing; or what is happening in the industry.

On the day

I always like to arrive early before too many groups have formed (as these are harder to break into). Have your name badge on and make sure it is visible. A good trick is to stand near the refreshments area as everyone heads over there when they arrive!

When you are feeling nervous approach other solo visitors and use standard conversation openers such as how was your journey or have you been here before? Ask questions (see ‘Get ready’) and be curious - most people are happy to chat. If you are comfortable being the first to offer your business card try doing this whilst you are introducing yourself.

Finally, if the opportunity arises introduce people you have met at the event to each other. Make sure that there is an obvious interest / connection before you do this so that the introduction has value for the recipients. This is very powerful as people will always engage with a ‘connector’. They are more likely to remember you and respond to calls or emails after the event.

When you think the time is right don’t be afraid to step away. When there is an appropriate break in the conversation say “it’s been nice to meet you’, shake hands  and move on. 

Finally, at regular intervals take a breather - review who you have met and make reminder notes on any business cards you have collected (these will help when you follow up after the event).

After the event

Well done - you made it through the day so pat yourself on the back! Even experienced and enthusiastic networkers find an all day event tiring. As soon as you can make sure you send an email to the people you met. A brief hello, it was nice to meet you, will do although it will have more impact if you can add something of value. This might be a link to an industry report or information about your company or a project you have worked on. What you are trying to do is make your name is memorable.

Finally, send an invitation with a personal message on LinkedIn. This is the best place to keep an eye on your professional network as you will be notified automatically about any updates (e.g. a change of job) or posts made by your contacts. 

According to Julia Hobsbawm (of Editorial Intelligence and Cass Business School) you should aim to add networking to your daily practice and “spend 8-10 hours a week networking: in person, by phone or email” and think of networking as being “about collaboration, development and growth - not just the next job”. In other words use your networking time and effort to develop strong, meaningful and reciprocal relationships.