Taking part in professional work conferences–either as a participant or a presenter– is vital to your career. These events help you stay up-to-date on the latest developments in your field and give you an opportunity to improve your skills.
Professional conferences can also play an important role in a job search, whether you’re currently looking for a new opportunity, or expect a job hunt at some point in your future. In fact, scoping out the job market is one of the major reasons people (and employers) attend work conferences.
Whether it’s a big national meeting or a small local workshop, conferences offer an opportunity to meet potential employers, connect with your peers, and get the inside scoop on new work opportunities.
But how can you make the most of the networking opportunities at these events? Here are four tips I recommend:
Before you hit the send button on the online registration form, know what you want to accomplish. Have a clear idea of what you intend to gain at a conference before you arrive. Possible goals might include meeting potential employers, finding new vendors, or exploring ideas you want to take back to work.
Don’t wait until you’re at the registration table to read the agenda. Look at the event website in advance, especially the speaker and attendee lists.
Often, conference organizers set up a Facebook or LinkedIn group for attendees. If so, make sure you’re involved in that group!
You’ll likely see the names of industry leaders, employers for whom you might want to work one day, or other professionals you’ve wanted to meet. Conferences offer an easy, informal way to do this. Setting priorities about who to see – or better yet setting up a coffee or lunch at the event – will help ensure you connect.
Leave email at the office
You go to a conference to accomplish specific goals (see above), not to work remotely. The autoresponder is your friend. Set a reply in your email account that lets people know when you will answer messages and how to reach you in an emergency.
Take advantage of “down time”
Some of the most productive times at professional events come in the conversations between sessions in hallways or at meals with other participants. One of my favorite times to chat someone up is while I’m sitting down, waiting for a presentation to start.
So put down your phone, find someone else who’s sitting alone and start talking. All you have to do is ask the “what do you think of the conference so far?”
To make the most of these informal networking opportunities brush up on your networking skills before you arrive at the convention center.
Contribute in-person and online
Yes, ask a question of presenters. But don’t stop there. Add to the discussion in other ways and help share it with others.
Tweet what you are hearing, retweet what others say, and always use the conference hashtag. Post photos of presenters on relevant Flickr or Facebook pages. Live blog a session. Attendees, organizers, and presenters will see – and appreciate – your contributions and will also want to engage with you.
I make a point of “live Tweeting” most of the conferences I attend. This helps me connect with other attendees, as well as people who weren’t able to the event. Sharing valuable content positions you as a thought leader that people want to follow.
Talk to strangers
Don’t spend time with an officemate you see every day. Take advantage of the opportunity to meet new people and learn from them. Sit and talk with strangers. You’ll make new connections and get new insights.
Chat up the person next to you before a workshop starts or at the lunch program. Introduce yourself at receptions. People will be grateful for your interest and you’ll have some great conversations.
Put those business cards to work
Don’t neglect the connections you made at a conference. When you return to the office, invite the people you met to connect with you on LinkedIn. Look for ways to stay in touch, such as interacting with them on Twitter or by leaving comments on their blog or LinkedIn posts.
Need more suggestions? The organizers of the Open Source Convention (OSCON) held annually every summer here in Portland have put together a great list of conference networking tips.