As I’m starting to get ready for SXSW this year, I thought I’d take a minute to share a few thoughts on conferences as I begin panning. Conferences and networking go hand in hand. I’ve made some mistakes in the past in this area and I want to share these ideas as I’m getting ready to do something important this time around.
What Are Conferences For?
Conferences in general tend to advertise something a little backwards from their original intent. Conferences are designed to get like minded individuals in any industry in a common setting to share ideas and hopefully push themselves as an industry to another level. Now this mission statement by itself is not enough to actually bring the number of people needed to make the whole thing work financially, so conference planners come up with (hopefully) an amazing schedule filled with workshops, presentations, vendors, parties and lectures featuring a long list of industry rock stars to get people to actually pay the money required and attend.
Its taken me years to understand why these two agendas aren’t exactly the same thing. Any good conference is certainly worth attending – I’m not arguing what they offer. But if you’re really serious about making your mark in your industry, its important to understand the real reason you payed all that money to attend…
Plain and simple. If you have a list of people that you want to hear speak at a conference, why not be prepared to actually try and shake hands to introduce yourself? In fact, recently I’ve decided its not really worth my time to actually go to any of the planned sessions if it means I might have a quite moment to grab someone in the hallway and make a connection. The truth is that just about everyone who presents is doing material they are known for. You can find this information on the internet usually in spades – and for free. Very rarely have I seen someone present to just a conference audience. People are busy – especially people who are known names.
I’ll share a story about a conference I wished I had approached much differently. In 2010 I was invited to speak at Le Web in Paris on a panel about photography. I was on a panel that included former Apple mastermind Jean-Marie Hullot (who wrote iCal), Fotolia founder Oleg Tscheltzoff and Malden Nicolaus who at the time was the social media manager for Kodak. I was terrified out of my mind and completely blown away that I was asked to present with these amazing people. I spent hours preparing what I was going to talk about and put together my slides. First mistake – I should have had more confidence because I knew that material cold. I didn’t need to spend all those hours on my presentation.
When my girlfriend at the time and I got to Paris, we were invited to a speakers dinner which was a large event held at a museum. The evening also featured private tours of an amazing Monet exhibition that was very exclusive and hard to get into. I was blown away by this as I work in an art museum (one of our works was on loan for this show) and I could talk comfortably about Monet and Impressionism. After the tour I was having a drink with Rodrigo Sepulveda who had invited me. He turned and introduced me to this guy named Matt. He said we should get along well since we both liked photography. Well Matt was really nice and we small talked about a few things – cameras, etc. Then the formal “thank you’s” were starting from the podium and our conversation was getting cut. I asked Matt what he did for a living and he says “I wrote this thing called WordPress”. My jaw DROPPED. I had no idea. Matt Mullenweg was as humble and as friendly as they come. And worse, I had blown my opportunity to ask him something interesting and trade business cards. Even worse – I forgot to even bring business cards. The rest of the conference was pretty crazy and I didn’t get a second chance to talk. On the plane home I realized I learned an important lesson here.
I should have spent a huge chunk of the time I spent on my presentation reading about the conference and researching the other speakers. I didn’t know. I know now though.
If this is making sense so far lets talk about how not to blow it with people.
How To Network At A Conference
Now that we’ve clarified the importance of networking – lets say you’ve done your homework. You read the speaker bios, you know what people look like – you’re ready to network. Here’s some tips on what and what not to do.
Don’t start by talking about yourself.
Its easy to think you need to work up the nerve and confidence to come on strong. I actually don’t like this and its a huge turnoff. People who are known get fans fawning all over them regularly – you’ll just be another one of those people if you do this.
I’ve found the best approach is to go up, shake hands, tell them what you do in a few words and give them a complement. For example, if I could meet Matt Mullenweg again I would open with this:
(Shakes hands) – Hey Matt! My name is Ted, I’m a photographer and I do my own web development. I’m a huge fan of WordPress – I couldn’t do half of what I do without the work you’ve done. Thanks!
Then you want to follow up with a question that opens the conversation for them to talk. It could be anything, but keep it light.
How many people work for you at the WordPress foundation these days?
or even something casual and non-work related
Have you had the chance to do anything cool in Paris (or whatever city) yet?
What you want to do is to show you’re actually interested in them. You are obviously, but you need to communicate that. Keep the conversation going for a few minutes, but not too long. Then follow with one statement about what you do – only one, then hand them a business card.
We’ll listen – I’m really honored to have met you. I have a photography podcast that I do (or insert your current project here) – if you’d like to check it out here’s my card with the URL.
And leave it there. If you go on too long you’ll get tedious. Feel it out and make it so they remember a good, brief conversation and introduction. You don’t need to ask for their card. This gives you a chance to contact them via email later (and do the homework to find their contact info). If the individual wants to keep talking then go for it.
This makes the best impression you can possibly make without coming off too intense. If you’re work is actually interesting and good – there is a chance they will be interested enough in what you do to check it out. If they’re not interested don’t sweat it. Move on to the next person on your list to talk to. Not everyone will be receptive, but this is your best chance at networking. Just make a simple solid impression and let your work be interesting and good on its own. If its not interesting or good then you’re not ready, but re-evaluate and try again at the next conference. You really should try and meet at least 20 people who are established at any given conference – and don’t make them all celebrities. You want to target people who are successful, but it doesn’t mean they have to be rockstars.
See how going to sessions is too time consuming to make this happen? do your homework and put your best work together. You’ll make something happen. And worse case, you meet them the next year with better stuff and people see you’re serious and dedicated!
So remember the big 3 things you need to have. Know who you want to approach, know enough about them to create some conversation and ask questions and finally – have a business card that’s clean with a link to whatever you do. That’s it!
Enough from me – I’m off to get my business cards printed and start studying presenters ;-)
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