The Rules of the Road for Networking at Conferences

Posted by Bridget Beirne
October 20, 2015

bridget-beirne-1.pngRemember Driver's Ed.? I sure do. Besides trying desperately to learn all of the rules of the road (How many feet away from a stop sign must I park?), I recall my teacher zipping around the classroom, demonstrating parking and turn signals in a wheeled desk chair.

Hey, it worked. We all learned how to drive.

What if, at some point in our collective education, we had all taken "Conference Networking Ed."? What if we had learned all the rules for networking at conferences way ahead of time, so we could simply hone them over the course of our adult lives? Not unlike driving, networking can seem daunting. And yet, we all are capable of doing it.

For the sake of argument, let's combine the two (hey, we love a mashup...) and imagine some of the road rules for networking at conferences. And if it helps you to zoom around the room in a wheeled desk chair while we do so, go right ahead...

Here are 6 Rules of the Road for Networking at Conferences:

1. Brake for networking events: With thousands of people in attendance at a conference, the idea of networking can be overwhelming.  Luckily, many conferences host actual networking mixers during the course of the event. While you may be tempted to free your schedule by scratching those off your list, think again. Take advantage of on-site events, especially if you struggle with networking. Think about it: everyone in the room is there for the same reason! Any fears of bringing up business at the wrong time or speaking to uninterested parties can fall by the wayside. Rather than avoiding them, embrace these golden opportunities.

2. Bring a road map: Conferences are full of engaging sessions, talks, demos, meetings, and more. You've got about a zillion things you want to see and do. Great! Plan your schedule in advance, so you can make the most of your time. Time you don't spend wandering the conference floor pondering your next event is time you can use to strike up a conversation. 

3. Keep your eyes on the... eyes!: You're having a great conversation with a new business acquaintance. Suddenly, your eye contact gets shifty and next thing you know, networking at conferencesthey're ready to bolt. Keep your eye contact steady and consistent, and make use of relationship building activities like the 3 Second Rule. While it's certainly OK to refresh your gaze according to the 3 Second Rule, if you glance around the room to see who else is there, speak to your shoes, or generally avoid the eyes of the other person, you send a message that you're not interested (or, at the very least, a bit bizarre). That spells disaster for relationship building.

4. Turn towards open-ended questions: And ditch closed-ended questions by the side of the road. Instead of driving for a specific outcome in your interactions, make it your goal to simply get to know the person with whom you are speaking. The best way to do this is to ask open-ended questions, that require more than a "yes" or "no" answer. You can learn so much more about someone, and spark an actual conversation. For example, instead of asking, "Have you attended this conference before?" try "What made you attend this conference this year?" Suddenly, you're having a discussion.

5. Note your surroundings: Afraid to sound too "salesy" when starting a conversation? Conferences are teeming with built-in conversation starters. Instead of jumping right into your elevator pitch (yikes!) or leading with, "So, what do you do?" (yawn...) try using your surroundings to get things started: "Whoa! Look at the line for that session. What's that one about?" "What did you think of the keynote this morning?" or even "Which food truck did you like the best?' are easy, human conversation "ins" to get talking with someone new.

6. Look both ways to observe body language: Conference days can be long — if you know when it's time to move along from a conversation, it can be helpful for both parties involved. Observe your OWN body language, as well as that of your conversation partner. Keep your arms open and your gestures high, with feet planted firmly to avoid "dancing" too much. And for goodness sakes, smile! You'll be confident and engaged.

By the same token, observe the body language coming at you. Is your positive physicality being mirrored back to you? Awesome! Is the person looking away, crossing their arms, or moving anxiously? They may be done with the conversation. 

Got some of your own rules of the road for networking at conferences? We'd love to hear them! Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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