It's time to start planning for the professional conferences you might attend this year. Excited? Or do you view conferences and other business networking events as ordeals to endure rather than opportunities to help your career?
If the words “schmooze” and “mingle” make you squirm, you’re in good company. Many people find initiating conversations with total strangers to be awkward, nerve-wracking experiences.
The problem is that even in today’s highly digital age, networking is still key to cultivating a broad and diverse roster of contacts and career supporters. Avoiding professional conferences and other networking opportunities — or acting like a wallflower when you attend them — are career-limiting moves.
The good news is that it’s possible to get more comfortable with meeting and greeting people; it just takes a plan and some practice. Here are some tips for how to make connections with skill at professional conferences and networking events this year:
Get off to a great start. A firm handshake accompanied by a pleasant smile and good eye contact immediately communicates both friendliness and self-assurance. Conversely, a limp grip, vigorous arm throttling or a wince-inducing squeeze will make for a bumpy beginning.
Win the name game
When you’re at an industry conference, you’ll encounter many new faces. Repeating names during introductions (“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jan”) enables you to quickly establish rapport and commit people’s names to memory. If the person you're speaking to has a business card, you have their company name, too. However, not everyone carries business cards anymore. You may have to look up those you meet on LinkedIn. (More on that topic below.)
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Make yourself memorable
Speak slowly and clearly to help others catch — and remember — your name. If you’re attending an event where a name tag has been provided, stick it near your right shoulder. When you shake hands with people, their eyes will naturally go straight to the tag.
Keep it light
Successfully navigating the initial introduction won’t do you any good if you fumble through the small talk that follows. Yes, you want to find common ground, but do so cautiously. Avoid personal questions (“Do you have any kids?"), company gossip and any potential hot-button topics such as politics or religion.
Grumbling about your job or complaining about the conference venue can quickly kill a conversation. Talking about why you’re excited to be at the event or what industry trends you’re most interested in learning about can keep the discussion flowing. Enthusiastically asking follow-up questions is another solution. Most people enjoy talking about themselves; give them the opportunity.
Put down your smartphone
Displaying poor digital etiquette is as common as it is frustrating. Half-listening to what someone’s saying as you check for incoming text messages won’t endear you to anyone. Strong networkers offer their full attention — not a steady stream of distracted “uh-huhs.” When you’re physically at an event where you can engage in face-to-face networking, take a break from the online variety.
All good chats must eventually end. When it’s time to move on (or you’re receiving cues that the other person is ready to wrap up the conversation), exit with style. You might try something like, “It was so nice meeting you, Pat. I’d love to stay in touch. Here’s one of my business cards. May I have one of yours as well?” Or, if you or the person you're speaking to don't have business cards, say, "Pat, I'd love to stay touch. I'll connect with you on LinkedIn."
Remember that for your networking efforts to pay off, you need to follow up. Strike while the iron is hot and the conversation is still fresh in the person’s mind. Sending a brief nice-to-meet-you email or a LinkedIn invitation (along with a short personalized message) within a day or two is a smart idea.
While you're at it, remember to boost your social media profile, because after the professional conference or networking event, you might get some traffic!