Are you happy with the number of people you met at the last conference you attended? Did you come away with connections that you can build on? Is the return you received from the relationships higher than the cost of the conference and the time you spent there?
For many of us, the answer is no.
Conferences can be an excellent place to meet people with similar interests who can help you accomplish your mission and goals. But only if you use a little ingenuity to make things happen.
Keith Ferrazzi in his book Never Eat Alone recommends these tactics to extract everything you can when you attend a conference.
Help the organizer (Better yet, be the organizer)
Many small conferences are organized on a shoestring. The organizer feels overwhelmed with the logistical nightmare of putting the event together. If you contact the organizer and offer to help, you’ll be greeted first with surprise and then with enthusiasm. Suddenly you’ll be one of the insiders. You’ll be talking to the high-status people who are attending, speaking, or exhibiting. You’ll know where the unpublished dinners and after-hours gatherings will be.
In short, you’ll meet and establish relationships with many more people.
Of course, this takes work and energy. Only offer your help when you perceive a fair exchange of value – your efforts in return for the opportunity to initiate important relationships.
Listen. Better yet, speak
If you speak at a conference, you immediately achieve elite status. It becomes much easier to meet people, both before and after your talk.
Don’t forget, you need something to say. Something that is not about your products and services. Something that will educate your audience and build trust in you. Something that engages and tells a story.
You can learn more presentation techniques at Sean D’Souza’s site.
Guerrilla warfare: Organize a conference within a conference
The dinners and receptions that the conference organizes are a mess. Too many people at tables for ten, too loud, too many strangers trying to connect.
Why not organize your own dinner? This works especially well at a three-day conferences where people are ready to play hooky by the second evening. Find a nice restaurant nearby and reserve a table. You can invite people prior to the conference, or invite people you meet during the day. Perhaps some of the speakers at the event would like to join you and enjoy their brief celebrity status.
At this dinner you build relationships with people you’d like to know in a friendly atmosphere. You also have the opportunity to introduce the people you meet to others. Lots of connections get made and their value is attributed to you, the host.
Be an information hub
Take the time to learn details about the conference and the local area that people might want to know — schedules, the best local restaurants, or where the private parties are. Pass this information along freely.
Master the deep bump
Ferrazzi calls this the “main weapon in your conference commando arsenal.” It’s the time you spend “bumping into” a person you had been hoping to meet. In two minutes you make an effort to establish enough contact that secures the possibility of a future meeting. In those two minutes you focus on the other person; you want them to like you and to trust you. Ask questions about what they are thinking and the challenges they face.
Know your targets
To master the deep bump, or other encounters, you have to prepare. Make a list of a few people and do your research so that you’ll be ready when you bump into them. Once you’ve met someone at the beginning of the conference, you’ll find yourself chatting with them multiple times over the conference.
Take the most important action: follow up with people after the conference. You’ve initiated the connection at the conference without interference from gatekeepers. But you don’t have a relationship yet. Follow up afterwards with a short email to remind them of your experience together and their commitment to talk again. Even if you aren’t able to meet with them outside the conference, you still have the right to stay in periodic contact. You can send them useful information and make introductions.
Becoming a conference commando comes down to a little planning before the conference, focused action while at the conference, and consistent follow up after the event.