It’s early in the morning and you’re on your way to a local conference – or it’s late at night and you’re flying to a conference across the country. Knowing you would be out of the office at least one day, you stayed late several days in the last week to get work done. In fact, you’re still thinking about a project at work and wondering how you’ll meet the deadline while being out of the office.
The last thing on your mind is networking.
Ideally you'd have thought through a strategic networking plan before going to the conference, but even without one you can take advantage of all the small networking moments throughout the day. One example is the opportunity to meet fellow attendees at breakout sessions.
Does this scene sound familiar? You don’t know many people at the conference and you don’t enjoy mingling during the breaks, so you go directly to the breakout session room 5-10 minutes before it begins. You choose a chair as far apart as possible from everyone else in the room, taking the aisle seat in the last row if it’s still available. Then quickly get on your phone to check work emails, scroll through Facebook, or play Bejeweled. As the room fills up a few people are sitting near you – perhaps even one seat over. The room is less than half filled and almost completely silent. You and almost everyone else is focused on their phones.
After all, the people around you chose the same session as you so you likely have something in common with them. You will have a much better opportunity for a great connection meeting attendees in this room, compared to someone you might meet randomly in line at the Starbucks in the hotel lobby.
Here are my 7 tips for taking advantage of these small networking moments at conferences:
Don’t Sit Right Away
Put your belongings on a chair and while standing turn to the person sitting closest to you and say “Good morning” or “Hi, my name is…”. Ask if they’ve met the person sitting closest to them – who will likely look up from their phone at that moment and join the conversation.
Ask Relevant Questions
“What drew you to this session?” is a good generic question, but you can get much more specific. Think about why you selected this session and turn that into a question: “I’d like to learn the latest techniques for [topic], what has been your experience with [blank]?”
Look for Outliers
Move around the room while you are waiting for the session to begin and start a conversation with folks sitting off by themselves. Gentle humor about how we’re all so quick to get on our phones (evidenced by 5 people sitting adjacent to each other in silence on their phones) is a good ice-breaker if followed by a question or two to get the conversation started.
Meet the Presenter
Now that the room is starting to fill up, the presenter has likely finished finagling with their PowerPoint and is waiting expectantly at the front of the room. This is a great opportunity for you to quickly chat with them before they speak. Say something about what you are looking forward to about their presentation. Pro tip: Plan to send a follow-up note that says it was great meeting them and thank them for their presentation.
Say One Thing
If you tend to be shy about speaking in large crowds, focus your energy on saying one impactful statement or question. “A few minutes ago, we were talking about [topic] and I wanted to add that in my experience [blank] happens if you [blank]. I’d love to hear from others in the room how we might approach this differently in the future.” Then, even if the conversation doesn’t continue around your question – linger after the session and make eye contact with attendees as they are leaving the room. Someone may stop to chat with you about your point and you can then walk together out of the room.
Work the Line
At the end of the session a few people will form a line to speak to the presenter. Out of all the people you might want to meet “randomly” at the conference, these people have also selected a session you are interested in and enjoyed it enough to stay after to meet the presenter. This is a great opportunity for you to meet someone with shared interests. Stand off to the side of the end of the line and ask an open-ended question about the presentation, “Those were really great examples, have you found a similar outcome when you tried it at your organization?” Someone who is outgoing will respond and a moment later you’ll be in a conversation with a few of the people who had been waiting quietly in line.
Leave in Pairs
After this session there is likely transition time between sessions, a longer networking break, or lunch. Rather than enter that space by yourself, try to walk out of the room with someone you’ve just been chatting with or met at the beginning of the session. Then you won’t have to navigate the coffee break on your own and you might be introduced to your new friend’s colleagues or invited to join them for lunch.
With these tips in mind you'll be able to take advantage of these small networking moments at conferences even if you didn't have a strategic networking plan before you arrived.
In the comments
Would you be willing to try this technique? If you have, how has it gone?
Share what you find challenging about networking. Maybe your question will end up as the topic of a future blog post!
Robbie Samuels has been recognized as a networking expert by Inc. and Lifehacker, and profiled in “Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It” by Dorie Clark. Check out “On the Schmooze” his new podcast.