Building your network: facing a conference with confidence

Building your network_ facing conferences with confidenceLet’s face it, networking can be pretty daunting.  I know people who’ve built successful businesses without ever going to a networking event.  But mostly, if you want to establish a wide network of useful business contacts you’ve got to get out there at some point.

I was very newly self-employed when I went to my first conference.  I’d decided that I had to be brave and go and network with (hopefully) like-minded people.

I found myself walking into a room that resembled an aircraft hangar.  It was massive.  I confess, I almost ran.  Then I remembered that I had a pocket full of new and shiny business cards that weren’t going to help me unless I gave some out.

What I did

I hate the sort of advice that says “I did this so you should do it too.”  If I’m on the receiving end I’m much more likely to nod, smile and then ignore.  However, I’m going to share my approach as it might work for you so feel free to steal.

First, I did a big lap of the room.  I attempted to look as if I was looking for something specific.  Actually, I was just trying to get my bearings.  Most conference halls will be split into sectors.  Within that there will be people you want to talk to.  I just got a general feel for the place.  More importantly, I realised that I could walk around looking at things without anyone giving me the hard sell.  Or a hard stare.

Secondly, I went for a coffee.  Pausing gave me a chance to think about what I’d seen and whose stand I might want to visit.  I also got chatting to someone who was also on their own.

Plan ahead

I know, planning ahead should come before walking around.  I had taken a glance at the programme of events but I’d forgotten to print it out.  So, I ended up sitting with my coffee working out which talks looked interesting.

I’ve been much better at planning since then and ended up sitting next to someone I knew at a later event.  They also introduced me to a lot of new people.

Have a conversation

Eventually, you’re going to have to speak to someone.  I’ve developed a 30 second ‘elevator pitch’ to explain what I do so at least I have something coherent to say.

Mostly, I try to remember that I’m just having a conversation.  If you can’t think of anything to say, ask questions.  What services do they offer? How does their product work?  Do they use freelancers? Can they help small businesses or do you need a huge budget?

People who go on conference stands are often chosen because they’re good communicators so let them talk.  You can learn a lot.  Don’t just view a conference as an opportunity to sell yourself, use it for research.  Find out what other people in your industry are doing.  They might have an approach to marketing that you can use or an exciting new product.

You can also find out where people are struggling.  Understanding your customer’s pain point is the key to good marketing.

Take the freebies

If you don’t come away from a conference with anything else, get the freebies.  Everyone hands something out.  I’ve had notepads, calendars and even cake.  I’ve also picked up enough branded pens to last me all year.

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