How to make the most of your next conference
BY ANNE SCARLETT
What do you call a crowded room, abuzz with banter and laughter, where relationships are created and deals are done? Is this an opportunity, or is this an intimidating – even daunting – situation to be avoided? Let’s paint a picture of this scenario. It’s the first night of an important three-day industry conference. You approach the door of the crowded ballroom full of strangers partaking in the opening gala reception. Here are your options: 1) Dash back to your hotel room, order room service, and do some work on your laptop, all the while feeling guilty for missing out on opportunities to develop new professional relationships for the good of your company. (Isn’t that a big part of why you are there in the first place?) 2) Take a deep breath and reflect upon the benefits of networking. Believe me, if you thought hard enough, you’d acknowledge that there is indeed much value to be shared.
3) Having prepared yourself in advance, enter the room with great confidence for a promising, fruitful evening.
Well, it’s a trick question because your best bet is a combination of options two and three. Here are some ways to convert the experience of networking from work” into fun.” Do some sleuthing As an attendee of a conference, an educational seminar, or any networking event, you may be privy to the attendee list in advance – just ask the host directly. At a minimum, the host may be willing to share the names of the companies from which representatives will be attending.
Scan the list to see which firms your company is currently doing business with, which firms you’d like to do business with, and which firms might be good business partners for future pursuits. If you are able to locate the exact names of the attendees, consider calling a few of them in advance to let them know that you’d like the chance to make an introduction in person. Often, folks are receptive to keeping an eye out for you; some may even be willing to meet for a quick coffee break during the event.
Bone up on the topics All of these professionals are in one place for a reason – they are either interested in the content itself, or they are interested in meeting those who are interested in the content. Take the time to learn a bit more about the topic(s) and the speaker(s). Do an internet search on the topics to form your own point of view for consideration and expression. You, too, may be there to learn, so you don’t have to be an expert on the topic. Rather, you simply need to have an initial opinion that you are able to support through examples, anecdotes, or sources.
Weave the web of connectivity Connecting good people with good people is a cool thing. It’s rewarding on multiple levels. Prior to the event or while you’re involved, think about the people who you know there. Who might benefit from knowing who? Who do you know in your network that might offer help to – or perhaps benefit from – the people you have met?
I learned this trick recently: Draw a circle in the middle of a blank piece of paper and put your name in the circle. Now, surrounding the circle, write the names of people you know in professional (and even personal) networks. Draw lines between the names that you think make sense for mutual benefit. Could the president of your former firm benefit from knowing an expert in your current firm? Could the department head of the civil engineering department benefit from knowing a key vendor contact? Networking is not always about reaping a direct benefit. Rather, it is an ongoing process that involves give and take. Focus on giving, which in this case, involves serving as a conduit to create good connections.
Over time, you will discover that your own efforts will be rewarded.
Practice your elevator speech An elevator speech is simply the notion of effectively communicating your personal core message in two to three minutes – about the length of time that you might spend in an elevator. The trick to an elevator speech is to be a storyteller.
People connect with – and are most likely to recall – a story. Consider this format: Start your speech by identifying your target market and how you help them solve their problem(s), emphasize what makes you and your company unique in terms of its process and solution, and finish with a short story that supports your claim.
Following is a paraphrased example of an elevator speech from a principal of an architectural firm in Chicago: My company provides municipalities with architecture and landscape design services for their downtown revitalizations. These municipalities often face two key challenges – raising enthusiasm and support from their community, and securing funds for the project. My company goes above and beyond simply providing our clients with a realistic master plan and highly contextual designs.
We add value by helping our clients craft their message to the public, and we often participate in public hearings to communicate the project with clarity. As well, we get involved in our clients’ grant submissions by writing a compelling project description that serves to define and endorse the project. Most recently, our client at the city of Springfield received the funding necessary for project kickoff.
They are so delighted with our upfront work that we were selected as their Master Architect, responsible for project oversight and for selecting appropriate firms for the execution of the master plan.
Rejuvenate yourself Networking requires positive energy.
Avoid burnout by taking time to relax, refresh, and recharge. If you are attending a local lunchtime seminar, consider taking a walk before the event – if possible – to clear your mind and get fresh air. If you are at a conference, build in opportunities for soothing yourself. Treat yourself to a few chapters of a good non-business-related book. Indulge in a phone call back at your hotel room with a close family member or friend who will be more than happy to talk with you about fun things beyond business.
Meditate in your room with a travel candle and soothing music.
Explore the town and enjoy the sights.
And for the dual purpose of rejuvenation and networking, go to the hotel health club and work out. It is no surprise that large conferences are full of Type A, ambitious personalities, all of whom exercise to maintain their sanity. By working out, you not only take care of yourself, but you also will likely run across fellow conference attendees who might be well worth an introduction.
Try incorporating these ideas into your networking approach. As networking becomes easier for you – possibly even second nature – it will also become more fun!
Anne Scarlett is the director of ZweigWhite’s Marketing Consulting Group. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.