I can’t count the number of conferences and networking events I’ve attended over the years. Some have been amazing and have led to millions of dollars in new business. Others have been a complete bust and didn’t even return the registration fee. While I would love to blame the conference organizers and other external factors, more often than not, the results have been a function of my planning beforehand, how I’ve shown up while I’m there, and what I have done afterwards.
Select the right events based on who’s going to be there
Some conferences are better suited for your goals and have better attendees than others. Before you sign up, do some research to find out who is going to be there and how likely it is that those people are going to be valuable to you. Look through the agenda to see what content will be presented. Sponsors are another good indicator for who’s attending and what they might be looking for. Some conferences will give you a list of previous attendees, or at least numbers and general titles. Don’t be afraid of contacting organizers to get information about who’s attending. While you have to take their data with a grain of salt, they will sometimes tell you things they won’t publish. Pay attention to the format and session structure. Is there any open networking time? When is it and how likely is it that the right people are going to attend? You can only sit next to two people at a time during sessions. Lunches, afternoon coffee, and cocktail hours will be much more productive if you plan ahead and work the room correctly.
Have a specific goal and a strategy
Going to a conference with a general objective, like “just meeting people”, will most likely get you lackluster results. Setting very specific goals and clear objectives, however, allows you to quickly zero in on people of value. You will be much more likely to separate the wheat from the chaff, knowing exactly what you’re looking for, and what you can ignore quickly.
While it might appear counterintuitive at first, having a clear picture also helps others make connections for you. Many people go to these events with the idea that general criteria will help them make more introductions, but in fact, it is the reverse. By telling someone, “I’m looking for C-level executives, of high-growth companies struggling with developing effective leadership and mid-level management”, rather than simply saying “I’m looking for startup executives”, means that when they meet a target, they immediately click and think of me.
Talk to people about your passions rather than what you want
Asking for leads upfront can be a turn off. Selling tends to make people put up their defenses, and can turn the conversation into a sales pitch. Instead, talk about the things you're passionate about, see if you have anything in common, or focus on finding what their passions are. I may start talking about making organizations more effective through better management. From there, I can ask questions about how many people they manage, how they learned their management skills, and if there any areas they wish they could improve. Yes, I’m looking for coaching and training work, but that’s not what I open with when meeting someone.
Pace the conversation like a very slow game of tennis
Have you ever been cornered by that person who talks your ear off and won’t let you get a word in edgewise? Don’t be that person. Regardless of how passionate you are and how amazing what you have to say is, don’t dominate the conversation. I like to keep the pace like a very slow game of tennis. I answer a question in a sentence or two and then ask one in return. Don’t drone on for minutes about yourself. If the other person is doing that, kindly interrupt and ask a focusing question to get them back on track. For example, “The advances you’ve made in electroplating sound amazing, and I’m curious, who do you typically sell your products to?”
Explore a few business areas to find a topic that you can connect on more deeply
The best analogy I have for this process is like trying to find a stud in a wall. (I’m trained as an architect, forgive me.) To find a stud you tap around listening for changes in the tone and feel of the response until you can zero in on the stud location. It is the same when finding connections in conversations. Ask a few general question about the business, how they got into it, how things are going, etc. until you hit on a spot where they react. Often times you see this as body language, as much as in what they say. Find something that lights them up, makes them flinch and carefully ask deeper questions. Often a simple “tell me more” or even just a moment of silence will get them to open up. However, don’t make this an inquisition. Try to reflect and share a similar experience. Once I have a connection, I’m in!
Use the 3-5-8 rule to make the most of your time at events
It is important to keep in mind, you only have so much time at the conference and you want to make as many connections as possible. Don’t spend too much time with one person at key networking times. I developed a 3-5-8 rule to keep me on pace. After three minutes of conversation, if I don’t see any immediate or future value in the relationship, I force myself to move on. If I’m seeing good long-term value, but not immediate value, I’ll find a good point to suggest a call, follow up email and try to wrap the conversation up in five minutes. For contacts that have clear short-term value, I’ll go as long as eight minutes and then I’ll make specific plans (date and time) to continue the conversation; this could even be at another break or after the event on the same day. The point is, during networking time, you want to focus on meeting as many people as possible and scheduling follow-ups.
Always get a card or at least an email address
I’ll be honest; I don’t bring cards to every event. Personally, giving out cards does not yield enough responses. If I find someone I want to follow up with, I make sure I have their card. If they don’t have one, I will pull out my phone and have them send an email to themselves. I tell them that this way, they have my contact information, but in reality I do this to get their email address. With LinkedIn and tools like Contactifier, an email address will lead me to their full profile.
Have pre-written emails ready to go
I have standard emails set up in my phone, which I can send out right away to follow up with people. These include links to my website and other content. They also include a link to my calendar system so they can find a time to schedule a follow up call. You want to send these out within 24 hours of meeting someone. These emails should contain details of the conversation you had, action items and clear instructions for next steps. The more specific a reference to the conversation you were having, the easier they will remember you.
Review how things went and next steps after the conference
Being a big Lean/Agile zealot, I like to do a little kaizen meeting with myself after events. I write out what went well, what didn’t, and what I might do differently next time. I’ll update my conference checklists and write out my to-do’s with respect to follow ups. If I have constructive feedback for the organizers, I might even send them an email thanking them for hosting, giving my suggestions, and offering a follow up call if they would like. You might be surprised how many times this initiates a response.
You might find my suggestions a little intense, but conferences are expensive and your time is precious. If you calculate the cost of your time and what you’ve spent in fees, airfare, hotels, etc., it will bring you perspective, and make you treat them like any other investment. Maximize your return by having a good game plan and excellent follow through.
Bruce Eckfeldt is a entrepreneur, a former Inc 500 CEO, and long-time member of the New York City Chapter of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. He provides executive and team coaching and management training to startups and high-growth companies. For more information on Bruce, visit http://www.eckfeldt.com or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.