15 Conference Tips For Networking Without Being Awkward

In this guide, I will break down 15 unconventional conference tips that will help you make the most out of your experience. Let’s dive in.

Before the pandemic, I attended & spoke at A LOT of corporate events and conferences, and I got as much as I could out of them each time.

It takes practice to master the conference scene and learn how to cleverly craft new relationships. I was certainly a deer in headlights my first few goes around, and there are still things I have to remind myself of each time I head to one.

Whether it’s your first conference or your tenth, it can be nerve-wracking thinking of it all—the different people you may bump into, the people you want to bump into, what to say, what to wear, what to pack…there’s a lot to navigate.

What About Virtual Conferences?

Right now, a lot of conferences are moving online. If you were going to the conference mainly for the talks and sessions, that’s great. You get all the good stuff without leaving your seat. But if you were going for the networking, that’s tougher to replicate.

You can’t have the same expectations of virtual conferences. They’re different creatures. They’re a lot more structured and there’s much less networking. You can’t have drinks in the bar afterwards. So you lose a lot of what makes face-to-face conferences great.

The tech sector is hard at work on tools like Gather.Town which start to replicate some of that face-to-face feel, and a lot of events structure breakout rooms to give some interaction. So you can capture some of the same feel.

Right now, we’re mostly virtual, but we’re likely to return to physical conferences later this year or next. I’m going to share my tips mostly for face-to-face, with a bit of virtual advice thrown in. Check out some virtual tips for networking if you’d like to get more detail.

I wanted to make it easier for anyone attending conferences and events in the months to come. Let’s look at some tips.

Conference Tips: What to Do Before You Attend

1. Engage with attendees using the conference hashtag

Hashtags help centralize conversations on the same topic. These days, there’s a hashtag for nearly every eventshow and day of the month. Conferences doing it right know this and fully leverage the power of the hashtag by creating a featured one for their events. Conferences such as #RevSummit18 and #SXSW have hashtags that allow attendees to easily track and participate in conversations leading up to, or during, the event.

Check to see if the event you’re attending has a particular hashtag and use it to search across social networks and participate in discussions with your peers.

2. Set a target list

Identify the top people at the event and research all about them. Make sure you recognize their faces and you think where you might encounter them.

Once you’ve found someone you may want to connect with, engage with them on social media beforehand. Like their posts, engage and add value. This allows you to build a relationship beforehand and makes it so much easier to say hello when you encounter them.

At a virtual conference, use the second screen we talked about to follow those people on social and see what they’re engaging with. If there is dedicated space for networking, you might be able to reach out using the private chat function.

Conference Tips: How to Network

3. Chat about the talks

When you’re meeting someone for the first time, a common question to ask is, “What do you do?”

Instead of that, try something that draws the conversation toward the topics of the moment. Asking “What’s your favorite talk so far?”  can lead to more open-ended discussion about the industry, what they enjoy, etc. What they do will naturally come up in all of that.

Leading the conversation by talking about interests and reasons for attending the event is much more engaging and memorable for all parties involved.

4. Write down additional information straight away

Speaking of memorable, here’s a fun fact for you: Did you know that short-term memory lasts a mere 20-30 seconds?

Who can remember anything if it disappears in under a minute? I’m not going to get into the many wonderful and mysterious ways our brains work, but I will tell you there are many tried and true actions you can take to have better recall and improve your memory.

Writing things down is one of them.When we write things down, it helps us retain more information as the act itself triggers a higher degree of concentration.

So, after speaking with someone who you meet at a face-to-face conference, jot down some key points while they’re still fresh. Step to the side and write some notes on the back of their card, or even in your phone. There are apps like CamCard which help with this. Make sure you can recall the context and details of the conversation you had when you go to revisit it later.

If you’re at a virtual conference, use that second screen. Copy your chat over into a Google doc with your notes, or even drop them straight into your CRM.

5. Have a lot of conversations

When it comes to conferences, being timid can cause you to lose out on some major opportunities for discussion and insight. You can literally walk up to anyone and start talking, and they’ll likely be cool with it.

At these events, most people don’t mind strangers coming up and saying hello to them. Most people don’t mind random conversations. Most people don’t mind you joining their table at lunch.

People go to conferences with the expectation— no, the intention— of networking and meeting new people. It’s not awkward.

Don’t be afraid to join group conversations in the hallway. If you see an odd number of people, that gives you a clue that there’s probably a “drifter” among the group; i.e. that third or fifth person is probably not as glued into the conversation as the others.

While we’re virtual, you can replicate some of this with the private chat, as we mentioned above. And it’s likely you’ll have the chance to use breakout rooms to do some networking. A lot of conferences are trying to structure these to give sponsors maximum access to clients. But you’ll probably have to do more with LinkedIn and Twitter.

6. Join the event Facebook group

If you’re going to a face-to-face conference with the intention of generating some leads for your business, that’s great! But remember, all good leads are cultivated from solid relationships. One of the best tips I can offer is to join and participate in the event Facebook group before hitting up your next conference.

Get involved in the conversation and RSVP to “side dates” such as organized group runs or dinners that fellow attendees have organized. Here’s an example of a Saastr Annual conference goer organizing some niche dinners for those that were to be in town over the 3-day event in San Francisco earlier this month:

how to prepare for a conference

Can’t seem to find any events going on? Take the leap and organize your own! Schedule a dinner the night before or an unofficial Yoga or Spin session at a local studio! The more creative you get with it and the more it aligns with your own interests – the more likely you’re going to meet some of the more interesting people at the event.

7. Say ‘yes’ to off-site lunches with cool people

Echoing off the point above, don’t be afraid to skip a session and build a relationship. Opportunities to interact in more personal settings, with like-minded people, are very special and you just never know who you might meet. If you have to choose between a talk or a lunch gathering, choose lunch!

Most of the information being shared in conference talks can be found online in the form of blog posts, podcasts, eBooks and other resources and many conferences also share video recaps of their major talks that can be viewed long after the event has ended. You can find these discussions and discourses again, but you may not have another time to build those relationships.

8. Don’t be creepy

I hear your laugh.

You’re probably wondering, as I am myself, why this even needs to be said, but I’m telling you it’s not so common knowledge. I’m always so surprised by some of the weird encounters I have at face-to-face events, but clearly I’ve had enough of them that this needed to be a key tip. Here are a few pointers below:

Don’t follow people. 

I know you want to talk to someone but if someone is walking away from a conversation with you – it’s probably time to say goodbye. Don’t follow a speaker around when they get off stage. Don’t follow someone into the washroom. Of course, you’ll leave an impression, but not a positive one.

Don’t be a close talker.

Don’t get in someone’s face when talking to them. If you have a little voice, it’s time to practice projection because getting centimeters from someone’s face isn’t going to fly. And certainly don’t touch them! Don’t play with anyone’s hair or caress their back

Don’t drink too much.

When you attend a conference, there are events all weekend long— morning, noon and night, so there will be plenty of opportunity to party. That being said, it’s still a professional setting and you need to be conscious of your limit.

9. Wait until speakers have a moment to recuperate before approaching them

When a speaker first gets done on stage, a billion and one thoughts are running through their minds:

How did I do? Where’s the washroom? I wonder who tweeted. What did they say?

Give them a moment.

Give them the time to clear their head, bring their heart rate down, and regain their composure before jumping in and asking some questions. Most speakers want to meet the audience and hear what you thought of their presentation, but timing is key.

I’ve walked off stage before and been met with 10 or 15 people all wanting to speak. Don’t get me wrong: I love that interaction. I love hearing that the audience enjoyed the talk.

But after the adrenaline rush of being on stage – it’s very unlikely that I’m going to remember anyone in that line to meet after delivering a talk. It’s better to catch speakers in the hallway after their talk, or during dinner or evening activities.

10. Always say “thank you” to the folks who pour the coffee

I have heard a few people in my life say, “I was raised to treat the janitor with the same respect I treat the CEO.” If that’s you, I respect you and I applaud your parents. Unfortunately, I’ve also witnessed several people struggle immensely at putting such common decency into practice.

It’s not that hard.

You shouldn’t have to think about being kind or worry about impressing certain people over others. You have to have equal regard for all people, regardless of their roles. They may not seem important to you, but without the event planners, cooks, taxi drivers, volunteers, etc. the show simply would not go on.

Be somebody that others want to be around because you’re kind and make other people feel good. Don’t act entitled and do treat others how you wish to be treated.

I’m just letting you know, if you don’t say thank you, I’m the one who will be sitting there judging you because of it.

Conference Tips: What to Bring

11. Water

Conference days are long, I’m talking 8am to 8pm. You’ll be going all day, moving about and talking plenty, so stay hydrated. It’s hard talking with a dry mouth and it’s even harder talking if you pass out, so avoid both by getting plenty of H2O!

12. A portable charger

Don’t get caught without any charge.

Not totally unlike a typical day, you can expect to use your phone a lot at a conference. But, whether you need it to take notes, check in on groups, tweet some gold, or call Lyft, you want your phone to be charged at all times so that you aren’t left scrambling.

Avoid worrying that your phone is not sufficiently charged to get you through the day by carrying a portable charger with you.

13. Some nice clothes

Dress codes vary quite a lot at conferences, but you want to make a good impression, so pack some decent threads. You want to be well groomed, smart and approachable. It’s silly, but the fact is that people buy more stuff from folk with good shoes.

(Once again, with virtual, this is an advantage. You can do the conference session in your sweatpants, so long as you’ve taken care of a bit of personal grooming.)

Conference Tips: What to Do Afterward

14. Write up your notes

You’re going to pick up a lot of information at a conference, particularly if it’s an overnight affair. You’ll have a ton of leads and notes. By the time you get home you’ll be tired, but the best thing to do is to sit down and write it all up when you’re fresh, so you have a plan of campaign when you get back into the office on Monday morning.

15. Send follow-up emails

You don’t necessarily need to hurry too much with this. The people you met at the conference will also have just taken in a mind-blowing amount of information and have a bazillion LinkedIn messages. But make sure you reach out and firm up those connections within a few days, before the trail goes cold.

Wrapping Things Up

So there you have it…

If you are fortunate enough to attend an awesome marketing or tech conference, comic book convention, or otherwise, these tips can come in handy for you. Make the most of the experience and take it all in. Learn from others, absorb as much as you can, add value, and leave a lasting impression of your own.

Have these tips worked for you? Did I leave anything out? I’m always up to discuss – Hit me up on Twitter @TheCoolestCool or leave a comment below let me know what you think.

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