Love them or loathe them, conferences are an established fixture in most industries. You may think that if you're not presenting a poster, giving a talk, sitting on a panel, or actively on the job market, it's okay to be a passive participant—or decline to attend altogether. Not so, says Alaina G. Levine, author of Networking for Nerds: Find, Access and Land Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere (Wiley, July 2015). Attending important conferences in your field should be an essential element of your career strategy because each of these gatherings represents a golden opportunity to network—that is, to build mutually beneficial partnerships with others. "Conferences provide singular opportunities to access and learn from decision-makers, appropriately promote yourself and your brand, and discover opportunities that can lead to employment, awards, and other game-changing career experiences," says Levine. "I like to refer to conferences as 'networking nodes' because they aggregate people of related disciplines or industries in one location, which makes networking extremely efficient."
But what if you're more comfortable taking your drink and hiding behind a potted plant than circulating and chatting at conference mixers? What if you'd rather run a 5k in your dress shoes than approach an industry leader out of the blue? Whether you consider yourself an introvert, socially awkward, or just a networking newbie, fear not. In Networking for Nerds, Levine offers concrete insight and step-by-step instructions to help even the most hesitant connector craft professional networks that are mutually beneficial and that support the advancement of career goals. Here, she shares 15 tips to help you make the most of your next conference:
Don't wing it. If you simply show up at a conference and participate in whatever events catch your fancy, you're likely to miss the best networking opportunities. Before attending the conference, familiarize yourself with its program. That doesn't mean perusing it on the airplane to the meeting city. Instead, Levine advises you to start reading the program about a month in advance, if possible. Then start creating your schedule. "Set aside time to attend not just talks and seminars, but also special events such as town halls, career events, meet and greets, and other networking-centered affairs," she recommends. "And don't forget to pencil in time to walk the exhibit hall, poster farm, and any other special attractions."
Take advantage of the conference app. If the conference you're attending has an app, download it. These apps are often full of hidden treasures. "For example, some apps list all attendees and their contact information, and allow you to send messages within the system," says Levine. "Others allow you to tweet and follow other social media sites directly from the app itself. Apps might also announce newly added events and activities, and can even give you insight into transportation options to get to and from the convention center. Take advantage of these, because traveling with other conference attendees is (you guessed it!) also a great chance to meet and network with new people."
Make appointments ahead of time... If you know you'd like to meet with fellow attendees, request appointments with them at least two to three weeks before the conference. They are busy too, so it's wise to get on their calendars beforehand. "If you'd like to connect with someone you've never met before, the conference itself serves as a reason to make cold calls, which is especially great for introverts," points out Levine. "And even if the person you want to meet is not on the program (i.e., she isn't speaking or presenting a poster), it's okay to reach out to her, ask if she will be attending, and, if so, whether her schedule would allow a meeting."
...and keep them short. When making plans to meet with others, ask for short appointments, such as a coffee meeting. The other person may not have time for a lunch or dinner, but he can probably squeeze in 15 minutes over a cup of joe. "Just be sure to leave yourself a buffer of time between your own appointments, no matter how short they are," Levine cautions. "You need time to digest what each encounter offers and to physically move to the next location. And you also want to have windows in your schedule just in case something special comes up, such as seeing Dr. God walking down the hall by herself."
Leverage the exhibit hall. Don't just wander around aimlessly looking for free pens and cup holders. Instead, try to learn new things and make connections that will serve you well long after those free pens have run dry. "Especially for large conferences where there may be hundreds of exhibitors, carefully study the list of exhibitors and map out where the ones you really want to visit are located," Levine instructs. "Make a plan to visit booths that are of primary, secondary, and tertiary importance to you, depending on how much time each tier of visits takes."
Explore the poster farm. At some point during the conference, plan to mosey through the poster farm. Take a careful look at what's being presented and by whom. "Not only will you get new ideas for research directions and learn about new trends in the field, but you will also have a fantastic networking opportunity," Levine points out. "The people presenting the posters want to talk to someone, so if you offer that chance, they will be thrilled to chat about their work!"
Don't eat alone. At almost all conferences, attendees flow into restaurants within a few-block radius of a convention center. And at mealtimes, says Levine, you can usually identify fellow conference participants because they tend to keep their nametags visible. So if you see someone from the meeting eating alone, don't be afraid to ask, "Do you mind if I join you?"
"Chances are the other person will invite you to sit," says Levine. "And since you're attending the same conference, you'll automatically have something to talk about. Don't be tempted to spend your lunch hour reading email when there is networking gold to be had right next to you."
Let your business cards do double-duty. Bring business cards to the conference, and if you are giving a talk, sitting on a panel, or presenting a poster, put a sticker on the back of your card with the name, date, time, and location of your presentation,” says Levine. "This way, whenever you hand out your card you can easily promote your talk..”
Load up your nametag pouch. Your nametag holder—especially if it's the large kind that comes with a lanyard—can be used for more than just your nametag. As soon as you pick yours up, put in a few business cards and a small notepad and attach a pen. This way you'll always be prepared to exchange information with fellow attendees. "I once received a nametag holder that included a pocket on the back, and now I bring it to all conferences I attend," shares Levine. "I'm able to tuck in a small notebook, my business cards, a pen, and the business cards of any colleagues I meet."
Be an early (and friendly) bird. Arrive early to talks and sit down near someone you don't know. This is a great opportunity to network, especially for introverts, because there is a reason to speak with the other person: You are both here to attend the session. "Furthermore, this networking has an expiration date, so you won't be stuck making conversation indefinitely," notes Levine. "After you sit, introduce yourself, then reference the speaker and his or her subject as a way to get the conversation started. Then, as soon as the speaker begins, you can whisper, 'It was great to meet you. May I have your business card?' Now you're done."
Always bring a great attitude. Yes, it's a cliché, but making sure there's a smile on your face as you approach someone or enter the room for a mixer can go a long way toward laying the foundations for productive relationships. No one wants to chat with someone who isn't happy to be there, is looking at their shoes, or is reading a text while simultaneously chatting. "Show people that you are serious about your craft and about their craft by recognizing that in-person networking is a privilege and an honor and is, in fact, enjoyable," says Levine. "This doesn't mean that you have to be the life of the party or change your personality from being an introvert to an extrovert; rather, show up with the expectation that you will take pleasure from the experience of participating in the conference. That joy will be infectious and will help to fuel the conversations you will have."
Utilize social media before, during, and even after the conference. We're in the Digital Age, and these days, many last-minute changes to conferences' programs (as well as many supplementary events and activities) are promoted only via the conference app or on social media—so make sure you're a fan, friend, or follower. "Twitter is especially useful because you can tweet and follow tweets with the conference hashtag," says Levine. "You'll get incredibly useful insight about leaders, hot topics, and sessions. Often, this info isn't shared anywhere else. You'll also be able to discover who the trendsetters and other established leaders in the community are, and get a sense for potential collaborators. You can retweet these individuals' tweets to help establish and amplify your brand. And by doing all of this, you'll have a reason to contact your newfound colleagues after the conference. "Additionally, a person may be too busy to read their email during a conference—but may still be very active on Twitter," she adds. "You can send him or her a private message on Twitter or even tweet to them publicly about their work to ask for an appointment. I have employed this tactic and have been able to set up meetings at the conference as a result."
Be a volunteer. Volunteering at a conference is your ticket to achieving more of your conference (and career) goals than you thought possible. And quite frankly, very few people take advantage of this opportunity. Volunteering at a conference establishes you as a professional and a hard worker, allows others to observe your dedication to your craft and the association, gives you easy access to networking opportunities, and opens doors to leadership and other volunteer experiences. "Imagine that you're volunteering at the registration desk or in a session room," instructs Levine. "You are perceived as the authority. So not only will people approach you to ask for help (even if it is to inquire about the location of the restroom), but you also will have an immediate and very natural way to strike up a conversation. 'Here is your nametag, Mr. Gore. I am so glad you can attend the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, and I hope you enjoy the climate change sessions. By the way, I am a student at Z University and am really interested in science policy. Is it possible I could take a few minutes of your time sometime during the conference to seek your advice about career options?'"
Even if you can't attend, network from afar. If you just can't make it to this year's conference, there is still networking value you can take advantage of remotely. Review the program, see who is speaking or attending, notice what organizations and companies are exhibiting, follow the Twitter feed, and then reach out to participants you would have liked to meet in person. "Email them and let them know you won't be at the conference, but that you are very interested in their work and that you'd like to explore the opportunity to partner," recommends Levine. "Ask for phone or Skype appointments following the conference."
Make sure to close the loop. Follow-up is of the utmost importance. If you just go to a conference and do nothing after it, you have (almost) completely wasted your time. "The meeting itself is the starting point to make contacts, to develop partnerships, and to appropriately promote yourself and your work," Levine notes. "After everyone has returned home, it's up to you to make sure you stay on your new contacts' radars. Start by composing an email thanking each person for his or her time at the conference, recapping what you talked about, and suggesting a phone or Skype appointment to further develop your partnership."
"When you optimize your time before, during, and after a conference, you will be pleasantly surprised by the relationships you forge and the opportunities you uncover," concludes Levine. "While 'born connectors' might make networking look effortless, it isn't. The more time and energy you put into making and developing career-enhancing relationships, the better your results will be. And who knows? In our increasingly connected world, your greatest future success might be a direct result of the networking you do at your next conference."