So you’ve registered for an upcoming conference, and you’ve prepared as well as possible. Once you’ve traveled to the event, checked into the hotel, and finally have that badge around your neck, what happens? Attending a conference is usually a significant investment, both in terms of time and money, so how can you make sure you’ll get a good return on your investment? Here are five tips to help ensure you will.
1. Seize every opportunity to introduce yourself.
This is the first and most important tip. If you’re like 99% of people attending conferences, you’re nervous about entering the room for the first time, and when you do, you’re convinced that all these people already know each other and you’re the only stranger there. I have some great news for you: you’re not. The best way to battle isolation anxiety is to realize that most attendees feel the same as you do. In between sessions, grab a coffee and break the ice by saying something to the person standing next to you like, “Yum, those cupcakes look good!” This may seem superficial, but it’s a very easy way to enter into a conversation. You’ll chitchat for a minute, and then you’ll have the perfect opportunity to introduce yourself, shake hands, exchange business cards, and voilà! Now you know someone.
When you take a seat for a session, don’t hide behind your phone, computer, or tablet until the speakers begin. Shake hands with people sitting around you, introduce yourself, and exchange business cards. I always like to come in early to do this because I find that during that 10–15 minutes of down time, people tend to be by themselves and are willing to chat. Be brave and try to engage even that person hiding behind her phone. Chances are she’s shy and doesn’t want to look like she doesn’t know anybody.
Finally, don’t be afraid to go and introduce yourself to speakers too (even if you may feel a little star struck)! I was much too shy to do it at the first few conferences I attended, and I quickly came to regret it. Take a deep breath, have that elevator pitch ready, prepare something nice to say (about the presentation or their careers), make it quick (many other people want to meet them too), and leave them with your business card. The next time you meet them, perhaps they’ll recognize you, and it’ll be easier to have a more extensive conversation. Alternatively, you can follow up by e-mail if you have anything more specific to ask or to discuss.
And at all times, always remember to smile—it truly makes everything easier.
2. Resist the temptation to stick with people you already know.
This is hard to do, especially because conferences are such a great way to get together and catch up with friends who live far away and you see infrequently. Try to divide your schedule so that you spend time with friends and with new acquaintances in equal parts. If meals are provided at a conference, try to sit down at a table with people you don’t know, introduce yourself, and join the conversation. If you’re going out to lunch or dinner with friends, try to ask online friends you’ve yet to meet to join you to create a more diverse group or grab a seat next to someone you don’t already know. If you’re going out to an after-party, go with friends, but once there, make an effort to meet someone new. Conferences are about networking—you really never know what a ten-minute conversation can bring you.
3. Make the most out of social media.
Social media (especially Twitter) is the best tool to use to get to know people who will be attending the same conference you are before you arrive at the event. But it is also a vital on-site conference tool. Find out what the conference’s hashtag is and save it in your Twitter application. Follow the feed throughout the conference; it’ll allow you to learn about special events, set up meetings with people, or get to know new people by retweeting their posts or replying to their tweets. Twitter is also great to find out what has been discussed in sessions you weren’t able to attend: there always are a few Twitter addicts (like me, ahem) who tweet the best quotes and pieces of information that were provided. Additionally, make sure to read the recap posts that are published once the conference is over (which will also be shared on Twitter with the conference’s hashtag). You’ll learn more about the topics covered in sessions you couldn’t attend and get more bang for your buck. Bonus points if you comment on those posts to maintain relationships or to start new ones, even after the conference is over.
4. Take copious notes.
Don’t rely on your memory to remember everything you’ve learned at a conference. Between all the sessions, the meetings, the meals, and the parties, you’ll likely feel overwhelmed by the end of it all, and that life-changing advice you heard or that fantastic idea you had will fade away before you even arrive back home. Always have a notebook (or your computer) with you and jot down everything you feel deserves to be remembered—even if you’re not quite certain what you’ll do with that info just yet. If you hear something that sparks a new project idea, make a note of it as soon as possible—but don’t forget to take action on it later.
5. Follow up, follow up, and . . . follow up.
You know all those business cards you’ve gathered? They constitute one of your most valuable conference takeaways. Keep them with you in your carry-on bag (so you’re sure they won’t get lost), and don’t forget to follow up as soon as you get back home. Take a few minutes to visit everyone’s blog or website before you write. Even if you don’t have anything specific to say, a courtesy e-mail with a “nice to meet you” message is always appreciated. Again, you never know where these relationships can take you—from business opportunities to great friendships—so don’t make the mistake of dismissing the cards as clutter.
Bonus tip: Take some time off.
Attending a conference is great fun—but it’s also a lot of work. All that socializing will exhaust even professional networkers. If you feel like you can’t take it anymore, go back to your room or find a quiet corner where you can sit by yourself for ten minutes in silence. Take a deep breath and remember that such inspirational opportunities don’t come around too often. Then jump back in and make the most of it!
This article was written by Marie Asselin, a French-Canadian graphic designer and translator who spends all her spare time in the kitchen or lugging her suitcases around the world. She is the author of food and travel blog Food Nouveau, as well as recipe site, Just Recipes. She lives in Quebec City, QC. Twitter: @foodnouveau
*** Are you looking for a comprehensive list of upcoming conferences (world-wide)? See the upcoming conference listings on Dianne Jacob’s site. Jenn Cuisine also compiles a detailed list of upcoming food conferences.