A professional conference is a truly awesome opportunity. Even if you’re an introvert (like me), taking an evening or a day to mix it up with interesting and ambitious people (like you) will almost always bring much needed social churn, career support, and an influx of new, refreshing insights and ideas. You should kind of always be networking. If you cringe when you hear that word, keep reading. And look at our posts about new ways to introduce yourself, listen, and create meaningful connections with fellow professionals.
If you’re anxious about making a stellar impression at an event like this or you just want to be sure to make the most of it, I’ve got you covered. Here's my simple two-step framework to rock a conference.
Sometimes being selfish is a good thing: it enables you to suck the marrow out of life and seize the day. Conference events have a lot to offer, but you need to actively take advantage of them. If you go in with a selfish mind-set, you will be sure to extract the most value. Here are some ways to do that.
- Focus and pay attention. You just never know when inspiration will strike at a professional conference. Keynote addresses can make you think differently about things you have always taken for granted. A new perspective on life is invaluable, but you will only have the chance to be inspired if you are really listening and engaged. If someone is talking about his/her career, listen with your vision of your career in mind and see what new ideas the speaker inspires. It probably goes without saying that this will require you to turn off your phone and bring your full attention into the room—even when it seems like no one is watching you.
- Take notes. Quotes, new ideas, book and article titles, research cited, the names of great thinkers—all of these will be thrown around at the event. Take notes about stuff that moves and interests you, and then follow up afterward. Some of the best books you will ever read will be introduced to you at events like this one.
- Participate. Inevitably, part of the professional conference will require you to engage more directly than by just listening. You will need to think, come up with ideas, and ask questions. Do it! It can be tempting to sit back and let others do all the work—especially if you neglected the advice above to turn your phone off! But it would be a mistake to not get involved in the conference. You can only learn and develop in life by participating. If you had wanted to spend your day relaxing, you’d be at home binging on Netflix. Since you are taking the time to attend this event, be there and engage.
- Connect. You will meet people at conference events who will play important roles in your professional and personal life—new clients, future employers, collaborators, mentors, teachers, champions, and even lifelong friends. To maximize this opportunity, get out and meet people. Introduce yourself, ask people what they do and actually listen to their responses, get their business cards, and follow up! Does someone have a job you might be interested in? Conduct an informational interview after the conference. Even connecting with your peers will benefit your career if you make genuine connections and then keep them alive. If you are worried that someone is too professionally senior or too important to want to talk to you, you are wrong. Read this article, and then don’t be shy about approaching speakers and leaders at the event.
If you come to the conference ready to be selfish, you will get the most out of it. But being selfish isn’t the whole story. You also need to…
Professional success depends on relationships. Building and maintaining effective relationships requires reciprocity; you need to give at least as much as you get. The givers enjoy the most success in their careers, so come to the conference ready to be generous.
- Give your attention. We already mentioned that you should shut off your phone during a professional conference—for the whole time. But it’s worth repeating because technology is such a strong temptation for all of us. Imagine you are delivering a presentation to a room full of 100 people. You gave your all in developing the content and hoped to really make a difference for the attendees. Then imagine, as you stand on the stage, you look out and see 100 downturned faces illuminated by the screens of the smartphones in their laps. How would that feel? That’s right, awful. People worked hard to create the event you are attending, and giving them your full attention is the generous and respectful thing to do. On the flip side, failing to do so is downright rude.
- Give your input. Does the workshop leader ask for volunteers? Raise your hand. Is there a chance to ask questions? Stand up and ask. Does your discussion group need a volunteer to take notes? Do it yourself. This doesn’t mean you should jockey for attention or hog the floor. That would be most ungenerous. But you do need to engage, take some risks, and speak up. The quality of everyone’s experience is determined by the participation level of every last attendee. Be a leader and share your input.
- Connect people to each other. Inevitably, there will be a point when you are milling around and trying to connect with others: at lunch, at the career fair, during breaks. Sometimes one of the most generous things you can do is introduce two people to each other. No one likes to feel alone in a crowd. Do you know two or three people who sat nearby at the plenary session last night? Introduce them to a professional at the corporate event. Are you attending the event with an old friend? Introduce her to other people you have met before the day ends. Did you run up and ask the keynote speaker questions when she finished her presentation? If you see her at lunch, introduce her to your seatmate. Magical things happen for everyone when you connect people with each other.