Ah, professional conferences. Those extended events dedicated to interacting with colleagues and competitors, learning best practices, and understanding the challenges and developments in your industry. Now with added cocktail parties, awkward luncheons, and endless awards ceremonies!
Business travel can be expensive; conferences can be scheduled at inconvenient times or locations and tools like Skype and video conferencing make virtual methods of connecting and interacting easier than ever. While following hashtags* or catching up with events online through live tweeting, live blogging, and recaps can give you a taste of each event, there are times when nothing can quite match the impact of face-to-face interaction. But it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the activity and forget how to make each conference work for you.
At a professional conference I attended recently, I noticed 5 distinct conference networking styles. I asked some conference experts for advice on how to avoid becoming the conference cliché.
The Professional NETWORKER
Everything about this person screams I’M HERE TO NETWORK. Whether you like it or not, you’re going to be met, spoken to, and then mostly ignored as he feverishly scans the room for MORE, MORE, and even MORE potential prospects. Without a word, this guy will all but throw his business card at you and give you a polite nod as he turns his back on you in search of bigger and better. You’ll never hear from him again unless he wants something from you, of course.
Alisa Bowman, co-chair of the 2012 American Society of Journalists and Authors conference and author of Project: Happily After (Running Press, 2012), calls this type of conference attendee the “Me, Me, Me.” These shameless self-promoters are only concerned with their own goals and tend to miss out on the fact that conferences are for learning and interacting- not exclusively promoting your own business or projects.
Some years back, I helped launch an international business networking initiative and was fascinated by the different business styles based on country and culture. One of the things I learned from my partners was that in the U.K. it can be considered in extremely poor form to give someone your business card -unless you’re specifically asked for it.
A pretty good way to remind yourself that before offering your card, you should try to interact and learn more about the person first. As Bowman puts it, “It has to be a real conversation- not please buy my book or product.” She continues, “There’s this whole weird business card thing- I sometimes feel flummoxed and I don’t know them or know anything about them. Why do it, unless you’re actively trying to exchange information trying to remember each other?”
A conversation with the cheerleader feels something like this:
“Hi! I’m extremely perky and make no mistake about it- my extreme perkiness masks my inability to grasp why I’m actually here, and what I should be doing here. I also won’t be able to give you much of an idea of what I do or can’t do, because I’m not really sure just what that is. Go Team!”
Many businesses delegate someone to become their unofficial brand advocate, someone meant to garner positive attention to a company or product. These people theoretically wear the brand colors when attending events, but don’t always give the people they meet a clear idea of what the company is about.
Allison O’Kelly, Founder and CEO of Mom Corps, says that even while you’re actually at an event, you should take time to think about the reason you’re there. “It’s easy to be there and be overwhelmed by a sea of people. Stop to think: Why am I here? Did I achieve that? Is there anything else I can do while I’m here to achieve this?” Just showing up isn’t enough. “If you’re going through all the trouble- you’d better make it worth it your while.”
He doesn’t have much time for you or the speakers because he’s so busy tweeting, texting, or thumbing his nose at the crowd that he’s missing the value of increasingly rare face-to-face interaction.
I’ll admit, those incessant tweeters used to drive me to distraction- until I found myself avidly following the hashtags related to a conference I’d been unable to attend. It’s a tough balance to take things in, while also sharing your views with your network. (Bad pun alert!) A good rule of thumb is to be aware of your surroundings and know when it’s appropriate to tweet or not to tweet.
Yael Grauer, who frequently live tweets events for clients, compares tweeting to taking notes, which helps her to focus on the most important things being said. Sometimes she’ll tweet from her laptop so she doesn’t seem to be exclusively staring at her smartphone and appears less rude to those around her.
Don’t spend so much time staring at your screen that you miss not only the spirit of the conference, but opportunities to create genuine and potentially valuable relationships.
You’ll recognize The Flirt because the pants are creeping into dangerously tight territory or the cocktail dress looks more like beach gear. They aren’t here for business- they’re on the prowl.
Though some people would have you believe that what happens at a conference stays at a conference, that isn’t always the case. While workplace flirting is acceptable in some spaces and verboten in others, it can become increasingly awkward at a conference.
It can be tempting to dress more casually when out of the office space, it’s important to plan your wardrobe accordingly. Research the event attendees and speakers. If the conference has a website, look through photos to get a better idea of what to wear and what to avoid.
She’s having fun. She’s taking notes. She meets some fellow conference-goers and is genuinely interested in who they are, what they know, and what they have to say. She exchanges business cards, if appropriate, and then follows up after the conference without keeping track of who writes or calls first.
Here are more tips to improving your conference style:
- Create a positive first impression: O’Kelly says you need to know why you’re there before you’re there. Ask yourself, “Why am I going to this conference? How should I be dressed? Who should I be going with? Who should I be trying to meet?” Plan out as much as possible in advance to ensure that you get the most out of the experience.
- Do your homework: Bowman suggests spending some time researching other attendees, if possible. “If you go into it knowing a little bit about some of the people in the room, you’ll have an icebreaker. Study something about their career, recognize them from their name tag, and say something honest about them or their career.”
- Use it as a learning opportunity: “If you see someone whose career you admire, ask them questions about what they do and how they do it. Makes them feel smart,” says Bowman. “It’s one of the only times that you can really do it. These people get e-mails all the time from people asking: Can I pick your brain for free?” They might be more relaxed, more open, and more inclined to share information in an informal situation, rather than with a veritable stranger.
- Consider volunteering: If you tend to be shy, volunteering at a conference is a great way to ensure you’ll meet (or at least greet) attendees. You’ll be able to put names to faces, which makes it easier to break the ice at cocktail parties and other opportunities to socialize.
- Wander. Meander. Explore: One of the more fun elements of a conference is the fact that organizers usually try to choose interesting destinations. If at all possible, give yourself a day before the conference to explore the city and see the sites. At the very least you’ll have fun and fuel for conversation.
*On Twitter, and some other online applications, using the hashtag (# ) symbol before a string of words is a way to follow topics, conferences and events or search for specific information. For instance search for #MintStyle, #Minters and #Mint to find MintStyle and Mint.com-related content on Twitter.
Rachel Weingarten is a style expert, marketing strategist & personal branding consultant for CEOs, politicians and celebrities and the creator of MintStyle. She is the award-winning author of Career and Corporate Cool and Hello Gorgeous! Beauty Products in America ‘40s-‘60s. Rachel writes for top media outlets including CNN, Fortune, Forbes Life, MSN, USA Today, Yahoo Finance and many others. She is a regularly featured expert on TV shows including Good Morning America and The Today Show. Visit her online at http://racheletc.com or on Twitter @rachelcw. Write to her with your burning style questions at firstname.lastname@example.org