Maximizing Your Conference Experience

By Brennan Dunn

(Today’s guest post is from Kai Davis who contributed this article about how to network at a conference or event. If you’re attending an upcoming conference, this is for you!)

How to make friends, build relationships, and have the best time ever at Double Your Freelancing Conference

You don’t want to just be an attendee at a conference. You want to take control of your conference experience.

Double Your Freelancing Conference (DFYConf) provides a forum for you to meet like-minded people who can teach you things and who can help you fulfill your goals.

Think of attending DYFConf with a ‘Return On Investment’ mindset. Is it likely that attending will result in you establishing relationships that build value equal to (or greater than!) the price of the conference and the time you spent at DYFConf? Absolutely.

But you need to put yourself out there, make friends, build relationships, and work the room for that to be true.

Often, new clients, new customers, and new deals can be traced back to the relationships that you start at conferences. Now, these aren’t deals you close on the spot, but relationships you’re building with people who, down the line, may be perfect for you to work with.

You can think of the main purpose of DYFConf as extending your professional network.

Smart business owners spend their time building strong relationships with the people they do business with. Make the most of your DYFConf experience. Build relationships with your fellow attendees.

The Hallway Track

The hallway track — the conversations that happen between attendees and speakers in the hallway between talks — is the most valuable part of the conference. Full stop. This is where the magic happens.

While others sit quietly, reviewing their notes, checking Slack and Twitter, or sipping bottled water, other people are setting up one-on-one meetings, organizing dinners, and, in general, making DYFConf an opportunity to meet people who could change their lives.

As you meet new people at DYFConf, your goal is to leave a positive impression in your wake. You want to create friendships and achieve the goals on your agenda, not sit and wait for something to happen.

Chat with new people. Introduce yourself to the person sitting next to you. Strike up a conversation with a stranger.

Based on conversations I had with — at the time — strangers at previous conferences in 2014, 2015, and 2016, I picked up dozens of new friends that I stay in touch with on a weekly basis.

Identifying People To Meet

Before a conference, I go as far as making a list of specific people that I want to have conversations with. Even if your list only has 3 names on it, it’s valuable to take an intentional approach to meeting people at conferences and events.

Here’s what I recommend: set a goal of building a relationship with two new people at the conference. A potential client or colleague who would benefit from knowing you.

Just setting the mental goal of meeting new people can make a huge difference in how you approach the event:

  • Look at Twitter and see who else is attending and tweeting about it.
  • Join the conference slack and see who else is attending (and start conversations with people in #introductions)
  • Do you have a friend or colleague attending the conference? Reach out to them ahead of time to schedule a time to meet.
  • Is there a speaker you want to connect with? Email them ahead of time, let them know you’re excited to see them speak, and ask if you could grab 15-minutes of their time during the event to chat.

Keep a list of people you want to meet the most. As you meet them, check them off your list. Write down what you talked about — and make a note about how you’re going to contact them later.

Don’t rely on random chance to meet people at a conference. If there’s someone specific that you’re looking to meet, ask the event organizer to point out where they’ll be — and watch where they’re sitting. Most people continue to sit in the same seats throughout the conference.

How To Talk To People / Working The Room / Relationship Building

You’re at a conference to “Shrink the world, Meet people you may not hate”. That generally involves building relationships with new people.

Talk To The Other Attendees

Make a point of introducing yourself to the people sitting around you. Just a quick “Hey! I’m {name}! Who are you?” can do wonders to make friends at the event.

Take the initiative and be the first person to say hello. This demonstrates confidence. The best icebreaker is a few words from the heart.

Your goal is to start a conversation, keep it going, create a bond, and leave with the other person thinking “I dig that person.”

You’ll want to open up in your conversation to find similarities. Expose your interests and concerns. Make the space for others to do likewise.

When you meet people, don’t just introduce yourself; introduce the folks you meet to other people. If your new acquaintances don’t quickly take up the conversation, offer a fact about one to the other.

Master The Quick Conversation

There are different types of conversations at a conference. During the time between talks or at the evening parties, you want to talk to lots of people. After hours, you can reconnect with people that you connected with during the day.

If all the time you have with someone is 2-minutes, your goal is to leave that quick (~2-minute) conversation with an invitation to reconnect at a later time.

It will take an effort on your part to quickly make contact, establish a connection, secure the next meeting, and move on. But it is achievable. Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You’re not looking to make a best friend. You’re looking to make enough of a connection to secure a follow-up conversation. Find commonalities. Identify the value for the other person in having a follow-up conversation with you.
  • Tune into their ‘What’s In It For Me’ frequency. Meetings and conversations take up time. If someone is having a conversation with you, they aren’t having a conversation with someone else. You want to be aware of what would make a future conversation beneficial to the other party and highlight that for them.
  • Ask questions that revolve around the other person. People love to talk about themselves. Ask questions about the other person, their business, what they’re thinking, and what’s troubling them.
  • Don’t rush around selling yourself. Focus on building a relationship. Sales — of any sort — will come later in follow-up conversations after the conference. For now, you want to focus on building trust and a relationship, not selling.
  • Focus on having warm and sincere conversations. If you only have thirty seconds to spend with someone, make the conversation full of warmth and sincerity.
  • Bring business cards with you. Be liberal about handing them out to people you want to continue a conversation with after the conference. Likewise, ask for business cards from people you want to continue the conversation with.

Understanding Your Body Language

Your body language will influence how people perceive you. There are some common sense things to keep in mind:

  • Smile when you meet new people
  • Shake hands with the people that you meet
  • Maintain a good amount of eye contact (~70%) while having a conversation
  • Unfold your arms and relax. Avoid a ‘tense’ posture like with your arms crossed over your torso.
  • As the conversation progresses, nod your head, lean in, and engage further.

Develop Conversational Currency

You want to have something interesting to say. Thankfully, it doesn’t only have to be about the conference, the most recent talk, or building a self-funded startup.

Ultimately, what you talk about is less important than how you talk about it. It’s always interesting to hear someone talk about something they have a great interest in.

If you have a passionate interest, but it’s outside of the realm of self-funded startups, don’t be afraid to share it in conversation. Your interests — no matter how niche — are opportunities to connect with your fellow attendees human-to-human.

That said, don’t monopolize the conversation or go into long-winded stories. You want to encourage the person you’re talking with to talk about themselves.

The Mirror Technique

One helpful technique while networking at conferences is the Mirror Technique. With the Mirror Technique, you envision yourself as a mirror to the person with whom you’re speaking.

You want to keep an eye on the following elements and adjust your conversation to match them:

  • What’s the cadence of their speech?
  • How loudly do they talk?
  • What’s their body language?

By adjusting your behavior to mirror the person you’re talking to, they’ll feel more comfortable talking with you. The Mirror Technique is a technique that helps show that you’re sensitive to the emotional temperament of the person you’re talking to.

Learn To Listen

When the conversation starts, don’t interrupt them. Focus on giving the other person the floor to speak. Show empathy and understanding by nodding your head.

You want to ask questions that demonstrate that you’re interested in what they’re saying. You want to encourage the person you’re talking with to talk more about themselves.

During the conversation, talk in terms of the other person’s interests. Focus on their triumphs. Laugh at their jokes. And remember the other person’s name.

Remembering Their Name

Nothing is sweeter to someone’s ears than their own name. I am terrible at remembering people’s names. These are the few things you can do to help you better remember names:

  • When you first meet someone, say their name
  • In the first few seconds of the conversation, repeat their name to make sure you have it right
  • Throughout the conversation, use their name periodically
  • When you end the conversation, use their name

This way, throughout the conversation you’re forming a mental association between The Person You’re Talking To and The Name Of The Person You’re Talking To.

Exiting A Conversation

Sometimes you want to exit a conversation. Maybe you want to talk to other people. Maybe you want to get a drink. Maybe you want to take 10-minutes to yourself to gather your energy.

Whatever the reason, there are a few elements you should keep in mind when exiting a conversation:

  • End on an invitation to continue the relationship (“It’s been wonderful to talk to you. I’d love to continue this conversation. Do you have a card?”)
  • Be complimentary and establish a verbal agreement to meet again, even if it’s not business related (“It was wonderful to talk to you about visiting and living in Japan. I’d love to meet up again soon and keep the conversation going. Do you have a card?”)

For making the actual exit, here’s a script courtesy of the wonderful book “Never Eat Alone.”

 “There are so many wonderful people here tonight; I’d feel remiss if I didn’t at least try to get to know a few more of them. Would you excuse me for a second? Before I go, I’d love to get your card so we can continue the conversation.”

How To Have A Conversation With A Speaker

Chances are, there will be a speaker or two that you want to talk with. Right after the talk, people mob up (well, 5-15 people) to the speaker to talk with them about their presentation.

That makes it hard to build a relationship. Here’s how to overcome that.

First, try and talk with speakers before they’ve given their presentation on the stage. After they’ve spoken, they’ll take on the aura of celebrity. You want to find them before they’ve gained celebrity status at the conference.

When you see the speaker during the day, walk up to them, wait your turn to speak, wish them luck, and hand them your business card and say you’d love to speak with them after their talk / later on in the day.

Here’s a script you can use, from “Never Eat Alone”:

 My name is {Name}. I know {Common Acquaintance} and they mentioned that you and I should talk, and I thought I’d just make the introduction myself. I know you’re busy, but I’m wondering if I can call your office and arrange a time to meet with you when we get back home?

If you miss out on talking to them before their talk, then you’ll want to start a relationship with them while taking up as little of their time as possible. When you see them, walk up to them, wait your turn to speak with them, and then just say:

“Your talk was wonderful. I’d love to email you a follow-up question after the conference. Do you have a card?”

Take their card. Give them one of your cards. Walk away and let the next person talk with them. Now you can follow up with the speaker after the conference.

How To Follow Up Effectively

After the conference, how do you follow up effectively with the people you’ve met? What I’ve found works best is this:

  • Collect business cards from everyone you meet that you want to follow up with
  • While you’re on your flight home, write up and send a follow-up email to people
  • Follow up. After that, follow up again. Then, follow up once more.

Don’t put off following up — or it might not get done at all. You want to be intentional about following up with people. Again, the majority of value you receive at a conference will be from the relationships you build with your fellow attendees.

Everyone you talk with at Double Your Freelancing Conference needs to get an email from you reminding them of your/their commitment to talk again.

Even if you didn’t get a chance to meet the speakers, send a note to them thanking them for their talk. They’ll appreciate it.

Here’s a short script you can copy, paste, and personalize for your initial post-event follow-up:

Hey {Name},

Wonderful to see you at Double Your Freelancing Conference. Sending this as a quick follow-up email to keep our conversation going.

{Relevant question, topic, note, or resource}.

Excited that we met! Let’s stay in touch,

— {Your Name}

Other Tips

Got another conference-going tip that you’d like to share? Leave a comment and I’ll update this post with your best conference-going tips.