3 Stealth Ways to Network at Conferences

Over the past decade, I have attended—on average—one conference a week, every week, every year. Seriously. Why would I make that up? As a speaker, I’ve shared a message at more than 500 conventions, trade shows, and company meetings. So, I’ve learned how to make the most out of my days on the conference-room floor.

Here’s the first big lesson for anyone attending this week’s Aspen Ideas Festival (or any conference): Very few hour-long keynotes have changed my life, but the people I’ve met at conferences have and continue to influence me in positive ways.

Take Jim Knight, the guy pictured at left, for instance. I met him in Arizona at a conference for CHART, the Council of Hotel And Restaurant Trainers (bet you didn’t know there was one). Back then he was head of global training for Hard Rock International. He was bouncing around the place meeting people left and right. I stuck out my hand and said, “I don’t know who you are, but I’ve got to meet you.”

Since then, I’ve bumped into Jim a lot, and no matter what conference I’m at, Jim seems to know everyone; and more than that, he’s doing business with many of them. I asked him, “What do you do at conferences that others don’t?” Here are a few things he shared, along with a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.

1. Trade Cards. Let’s be honest, I don’t think it’s natural for any human being to walk up to another and strike up a conversation. It’s just not built into our DNA. Me, I think I’m one of the world’s most social people, but approaching someone at a convention still feels like I’m throwing out a pick-up line at a bar: “How you doing?” (Channing my inner Joey Tribbiani there.)

Realize this: Everyone feels the same way you do. So simplify it. Say, “Hi, I am (Insert Your Name Here). I don’t know a soul here, how about you?” Then ask for their business card and give them one in return. Ask them where they work, why they came to the conference, if they have any kids, how long they’ve worked in the industry, or whatever you think might put them at ease. One thing I learned from my dad was the most interesting person in the room is the one you are talking with.

2. Volunteer. There’s almost always a way to get involved in any conference you attend. More and more organizers are offering attendees a chance to work at a service project in the community (like a food bank or soup kitchen); others are looking for volunteers to take on a shift as a conference worker (helping direct people or introduce speakers). There are often charity fundraisers over an evening (Jim was always at these events); and there are even 5Ks to run in. I ran (or, rather, walked; my wife ran) one of these earlier this year to benefit the employee assistance program of a restaurant chain where I was speaking. It felt good to give, and I networked with a dozen great people along the way.

Getting involved behind the scenes is a great way to network and meet other people passionate about your industry; and the relationships you build will inevitably help you better understand the opportunities in your business.

3. Follow Up, Knucklehead! It happens to all of us. You return to the office with a stack of business cards but you have 16 calls from customers and your office administrator is shrieking at you to fill out a Why-I-Was-Away-From-Work slip for HR. Pretty soon the stack of cards gets pushed to the side to make way for your much needed Red Bull or Diet Coke, then to the edge of the desk, then into a drawer. Make a goal: Within three days you will reach out to everyone you met at the conference, connect with them via LinkedIn, and sit down and pen a quick handwritten thank you note with your business card inside—old school, but very personal and very effective.

Take it a step further by blogging or tweeting about what you learned at the conference and who you learned it from; and connect with speakers you liked about what ideas of theirs you’ll try. Chances are, many of the people you talk about will become friends and perhaps even valuable contacts later in your career.

I am always amazed at how many amazing people there are in the world if I just take the time to stick out my hand and say “hi.”

Don’t be shy. Trade some cards, volunteer, follow up, and you never know who you’ll meet and the relationships you build. You might even get lucky and meet someone as cool as Jim Knight.

Photo: Sam Edwards/OJO Images via Getty Images

Post by: Chester Elton Source: LinkedIn

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