If you’re an introvert or are a recent college graduate trying to figure out the best ways to network, you might be wondering if professional conferences are worth pursuing.
They can be large, overwhelming, and pass by in the blink of an eye. How can you get the most out of the networking opportunities that present themselves at conferences?
I have to admit, I wasn’t entirely sure around this time last year. The Financial Blogger’s Conference (or FinCon) was just around the corner, and I had purchased a ticket at the last minute as I had just launched my freelance writing career.
All my friends encouraged me to attend, saying the connections made there are insanely valuable. They were right.
With FinCon15 less than a month away, networking and conferences have been on my mind. Plus, Wherewithal is going to be an exhibitor there, and as a startup, conferences are a goldmine of opportunity for us to show off what we have to offer!
If you want to learn how to network at conferences like a pro, here are the tips I learned from my last experience.
Just Be Yourself
It sounds silly, but seriously, the best thing you can do is act as you normally would. Most conferences aren’t super high-strung – people are friendly, and they’re looking forward to meeting you just as much as you’re looking forward to meeting them. There’s no reason to be worried!
Besides, people want to get to know the “real” you at a conference. Your personality is what’s going to leave a lasting impression.
Of course, you should be as professional as the conference calls for. The atmosphere at FinCon, for example, isn’t overly-professional – people were dressed in jeans and had lots of fun partaking in after-conference-hours shenanigans. Don’t be afraid to go out to extra events being held alongside the conference. That’s the best time to make connections!
Remember Everyone Is There for Similar Reasons
If you’re an introvert like me, you might be a little shy and reserved in the face of so many people being in one area.
I had no idea what to expect last year, and the amount of people that showed up amazed me. The personal finance community is pretty tight-knit, but I had forgotten to account for media outlets and major publications.
There were a few times I let my shyness hold me back from reaching out to people, and that’s one of the biggest regrets I had. It helps to remember that everyone is there for mostly the same purpose: to network.
Everyone wants to meet new people and collect business cards. In fact, it’s expected! You’re not going to seem rude for doing it.
Just approach people with a smile and be prepared with a short mental list of questions for them to get the conversation going. One of the easiest ice breakers is simply asking how they’ve been enjoying the conference so far, or what their favorite aspect of it has been.
Business Cards Are a Must
This can’t be stated enough. Do not forget to have business cards made before heading to a conference! People are going to ask you for them, and it’s the easiest way for people to keep in touch with you after the conference. They’re not going to remember who you are in their phone book, and adding each other on Twitter isn’t as meaningful.
I was on the fence about getting business cards because they can be a little costly, but I would have been lost if I didn’t have them made up. They come in handy outside of conferences, too – especially if you have a side hustle and make a connection in your local community.
It doesn’t have to cost a fortune to get them designed, either. If you’re just starting out and aren’t in a field where “pretty” business cards are a must, then you can design your own from templates across the web. Canva even has a few tools to help you out.
Create a Game Plan
Remember how I said I decided last-minute to go to FinCon last year? Unfortunately, I was so excited about planning how to get there, that I forgot to make a plan for what I was going to do while there.
As a result, I missed out on a lot. I should have researched who was going, reached out to them ahead of time to arrange meetings, and given the schedule a good look for all the other activities going on.
I’m not lying when I say the conference flew by. It was 3 days and felt like one mushed together. Everyone I spoke with agreed. Spontaneous meetings can happen, of course, but it’s generally better to have a plan to work off of while you’re there to maximize your experience.
Along with this, it helps to get in the right frame of mind before going. Again, if you’re an introvert, you should probably try to get excited about meeting fantastic people beforehand. It helps to “hype” yourself up to keep the enthusiasm going.
When you’re exhausted and the thought of having another conversation is enough to send you reeling, have a plan for unwinding. Either go back to your hotel room, or find a quiet place to relax in-between panels.
Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
It’s pretty clear the key to getting the most out of a conference and networking is to plan and prepare beforehand. That means briefly reviewing the conference center, the immediate area, and the hotel you’re staying at. Figure out what you’ll do for meals – are they being provided, or should you scout out places nearby?
Keep an eye on the weather, especially if the conference is in a different part of the country you’re not familiar with. Pack accordingly.
If you have more time than a few months to prepare, think about travel hacking your way to the conference if it’s not being paid for by your employer. Conference expenses add up quickly depending on where it’s being held. Most conferences and conventions are in major cities where food and lodging tend to be more expensive, even with hotel discounts. It could be worth staying at an Airbnb instead.
It goes without saying, but you should be saving and budgeting for the conference separately, too. Expenses might be considered a tax write-off if you’re self-employed, but in the meantime, you don’t want to overextend yourself and ruin a good time because you’re worried about your balances.
Don’t Be Afraid to Network
Overall, I’d say conferences are a great opportunity to broaden your network, if you plan to take full advantage of them. That means pushing yourself out of your comfort zone, engaging with others there, and following up with all the contacts you made after it’s over. I plan on following all of these tips at FinCon this year, and can’t wait to see everyone there!
Do you attend professional conferences? Why or why not? Do you shy away from networking? How have you overcome it?