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How to Network at a Conference

You've heard of so-called networking events. You go, maybe you dress up, you might take some business cards, you grab a drink, and then you find someone to talk to without embarrassing yourself. And perhaps even sometimes, you just end up talking to the people you came with, or someone you already know.

What was the point of that, then?

I often find the best networking happens at conferences, and not at local bars for young professional night. After all, everyone there (at the conference, that is) theoretically has similar interests, professions, or – at the bare minimum – swag.

And so I found myself once again networking at a conference. I traveled to Charleston, SC for the Blackbaud Annual Conference for Nonprofits. I'll be presenting tomorrow on how nonprofits can communicate with the next generation, but tonight was all about grabbing some sushi and a few business cards.

Above all, conferences nearly force you to network. After all, there's nothing to do but retreat to my hotel for the evening and watch Entourage. And the next two days will have me attending workshops, grabbing lunch, visiting booths – all in the same spot. In other words, I'm already here, so I might as well max it out.

If you don't go to at least one conference a year, you should – just for the networking. And when you book that trip, here are some ways to network at a conference, especially if you find yourself awash in a sea of people, one hand on your house merlot and the other nervously thumbing your business cards in your pocket:

  • Get a good opening line. "Where are you from?" or "Did you come last year?" are lame. And you don't want people to think you're lame. Since I was wearing jeans and not a lot of people were, I went up to those rocking denim and announced I was glad to see someone else in jeans. I also found young people and told them I was glad to see I wasn't the youngest person there. Both lines/openers can't be said without at least half a smile, so you can at least count on a pleasant facial expression. And if someone thinks you're lame, who cares? You'll be gone in two days.
  • Hand out your business card immediately. Don't wait for them to give you theirs. Hand yours over right after you say your name and who you're with. If your business card sucks, you need to get new business cards. When you get theirs, hold it in your hand until someone else in the circle gives you theirs or the conversation is over.
  • Pick a compliment. Comment on the font on their business card or tell them you like the color of their jacket. You don't have to be over the top and you don't have to be a liar. But offering a meaningful and unique compliment will go a lot further than, "You’re from Milwaukee? I had a layover there once." Yeah – you and millions of others. But only a few people said they liked my cufflinks.
  • Stay put – at least for a few minutes. If you're constantly in motion, walking around the room and darting your eyes looking for people looking for a conversation, you won't be able to be found. Mosey around, but pause out the open somewhere and take a sip or two. You'll be surprised at who approaches you.
  • Set a goal. Try to meet 25 people. Gather 50 business cards. Meet people from 10 other states. Internal goals and benchmarks like this will make sure you stay long enough to make it worth your while.
  • Leave at the right time. This is hard to determine, but if I've had 20 minutes of inactivity, I'm like a hard drive and I shut down. If you stay too long, you'll just be wasting your time, but if you leave too early, you missed some key opportunities. Decide before you go in how long you're staying so that it's worth your while and you can still rest up, especially if it's just the first night and you've got a presentation the next day.

Above all, when at a conference, network everywhere - at lunch, in the exhibit area, during breaks. Most of what you learn can probably be found in books or on blogs. But all of who you meet can only be found on site.

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