I crashed a conference this week. It wasn’t intentional – I didn’t start out the day thinking, “I wonder how I can interact with new people today.” But it worked to my favor, and started opening my eyes.
I work in a downtown area connected to the city’s convention center. We regularly make the trek from our office building to the food court at the convention center for lunch. Today, I was standing in line at a vendor while the crowd from the convention was bustling around me. It had already been a particularly hectic week, and the crowd was an unpleasant surprise because I was in a bit of a hurry. I was completely focused on choosing my lunch when I heard a voice behind me.
“Are you having a good time today?”
I initially didn’t turn around, because I was sure that question wasn’t for me. When I didn’t hear a response follow the question, I glanced back and saw a young smiling face. He was wearing a conference badge around his neck.
“Well, yeah, I guess. I’m working today. So as much fun as you can have working, I’m having it.”
Despite my less-than-engaging answer, we chatted for a few minutes. This was a music educator’s convention – something I don’t do as a career, but I am a former music major and can relate to their passion for music and performance. In the span of time it took to place our orders, I learned this person was just beginning his college career, what instrument he played (and what instruments he wanted to learn to play), and what types of sessions he was attending at the conference. Just a brief conversation, but this was probably more than I learn about people on my work floor in a week’s time.
The co-worker I had walked with to get our lunch met up with me after gathering her meal, and said someone had asked her the same question. It must be a challenge they were issued as part of the conference, I thought. Sounds like an interesting way to get people to interact, and a sneaky version of the dreaded ice breakers.
As I was crossing the street back to my daily grind, it hit me. This encounter was actually a great teaching moment, and I had practiced my conference skills without knowing it. I’m not the best at starting a conversation with strangers. When I’m feeling particularly energized, I can work up the courage to blurt out a few quips to someone in the elevator about the weather, but starting a conversation is a little (okay, more than a little) nerve racking. I stumbled into a great networking experience at last year’s ASTD ICE, and found it easy to interact with folks I had ‘met’ through social media, but starting up a conversation in the sessions was a whole different story. And since last year’s conference, I felt I was getting worse at it. Almost to the point of wondering how I was going to meet new people this year.
This chance encounter with a random stranger has opened my eyes to the possibilities in my own back yard. How often do I wait in lines with people who might be willing to chat for just a few minutes? What could I learn if I just open up to the possibility we have something in common? And what fun would it be if I could expand my network even further into my community?
If I run into him again, I’ll have to let that young man know he was already a successful educator. But only after I practice my scales.
Kelly and I had the pleasure of attending Training Magazines Conference & Expo in Orlando, Florida. The conference was a great learning event as well as a fabulous networking event. I just wanted to share with you some of the highlights that confirmed many of the networking tips we have shared with you in the past:
- Let things happen organically: There is no reason to always feel “on”. By just meeting people and letting the conversation flow organically we were able to make great connections that we will have for a long time. Just like any other situation, a conversation that starts off with what city you traveled from will soon move to what other conferences you have attended, who you work for, what you do… without you forcing it. So relax and just enjoy the experience of getting to meet new people.
- Our network is your network: One of the best parts about a network is that you can share it with others. By really listening when people talk it is very easy to make introductions of people that you will know have something in common. Example: I knew that our friends at Legacy Business Cultures were going to CHART in San Diego and Miami this year. I met a person in the lounge who shared with me that he was going to CHART in Miami alone. Later that evening I was able to introduce the guys from Legacy to this gentleman. They had a great chat, plan on meeting up in Miami AND have discussed a possible business relationship. WIN WIN.
- Networking doesn’t have to happen in a suit: While organized networking events are a great way to get to know people – so is bumming around Disney in jeans and flip flops. The key is to not have an agenda. The only thing you should plan to do is have a great time, relax and let others see your fun side. Afterwards, when you are dead tired and lying in bed, you will be surprised at how much you learned about the people with whom you shared a giant turkey leg.
- It’s never “out with the old and in with the new”: While learning new things about new people is always exciting – it is even more exciting when you learn something new about someone you have known for years. This week I learned that my friend and business partner, Kelly, sings Opera. I also learned that Amber, a friend for years, lived in Italy. If you continue to learn about people, regardless of how long you have known them, you will NEVER have a dull conversation.
- Laughter doesn’t have a schedule: Laugh often, laugh loud and never apologize for it. From first thing in the morning, to traveling on the Disney bus, to walking the expo hall and at 2am in the hotel room…. There is never a wrong time to laugh. What? Not professional to carry on that way? Well, if those are the standards than I vow here and now to never be considered professional. Remember, people like doing business with people that they like and trust is built by being genuine. So go ahead and give into that giggle fit – it makes you human.
- Don’t over plan: Kelly and I use twitter all the time and this conference was no exception. A great night of making connections can be done with a simple tweet. We decided to tweet that we would be at the Laguna Bar at our hotel overlooking the water on Sunday night at 6pm before the official start of the conference on Monday. Weather made us have to change our location which we tweeted as well. The end result was a nice gathering of people from all over the US and Canada. Connections were made and friendships were formed. I am pretty certain I also heard talk of collaboration and business deals! Amazing what picking a place and posting some tweets can do.
I could go on and on about our time in Orlando but I think you get the picture. Networking is hard because we often make it hard… slow down… be yourself… let things happen. Remember, connections are made in both the organized and organic settings…. They are made in business suits and swimsuits…. they can be short term collaborations and long term friendships… all you have to do is be open minded, curious and engaged.
As always, thanks for reading~
If you’re going to Training 2013, we’d love to meet you! Come hang with Kelly and Michele from Red Feather Networking at the Laguna Bar on Sunday night. We’ll be there from 6 PM to whenever. Stop over and say hello!
There are two frustrations I most often hear from people when they get home from a conference. 1) They didn’t know how to meet people and didn’t take advantage of networking while they were there. 2) They were inspired and motivated by the conference but once they got home real life took over and they never truly used the great things they learned.
There is no easy fix for these complaints, but I do have a suggestion that will help. Make good use of the conference back channel. The back channel is a flow of information happening real-time during the conference and is usually done using Twitter.
Now, if you are not a Twitter user, please practice your “withholding judgment” skills. There is no reason you can’t get a Twitter account to use during this conference and then afterward go back to your less connected life. Don’t discount the backchannel simply because of the platform it’s being transmitted by.
OK, now that you have a Twitter account, how do you find the backchannel? If the conference you’re attending really has it together, you’ll find a hashtag listed on the conference page. A hashtag starts with a # and is made up of cryptic letters and numbers that should have something to do with the conference. For example, The Training 2013 Conference that I attend has a hashtag of #trg13. You can do a twitter search on this hashtag to find all of the Tweets for the conference.
Ways you can use the backchannel:
1. Use the Backchannel to “Meet” People Before the Conference. Send some tweets about the sessions you’re going to attend. Retweet good tweets from other tweets. Tweet out to people who say things you like. You’ll get to know them online and when you meet them in person at the conference it will be like you’re already friends. Yes, you really can meet people on Twitter.
2. Use the Backchannel to monitor what is happening at the conference. People will tweet out quotes and learnings from session they’re in. They’ll tell you their plans for the evening. They’ll tell you which speakers are good and which to avoid. If it’s a large enough conference, the stream will go so fast that you won’t be able to keep up and you’ll have to flip back through it at night when things are quieter.
3. Use the backchannel as a motivator and reminder when you get home. The Tweets will be available on Twitter for several months and you use a free tool such Hootsuite to look at them or Row Feeder to download and keep them. There are even people in different industries who will curate backchannels for specific events, pulling out the best tweets and making them available in a report.
The backchannel is a fabulous tool for any conference or event. Don’t miss out on this great resource!
Have you ever been a part of a conference backchannel? Did you love it? Hate it? Have advice for using it? Post a comment below!
Q : “Every conference I have ever attended I see people wearing everything from business suits to blue jeans. Is there a rule of etiquette on what to wear?”
You are absolutely correct and there is no hard and fast rule that I can share. Ultimately, you need to keep in mind that if you are attending a conference it is most likely work sponsored. This means that you will want to represent your company in a positive light. However, be sure to consider the long days, the cold session rooms and comfort. My personal method is this: Conferences 1-3 days long = professional dress every day. Conferences 1-6 days = a gradual dress code that starts with professional, business casual mid-way and ends with casual on the last day. This is not something that I planned, I just found it to be my pattern and it may not be for everyone. Of course for any after-hours networking event you will need to consider the event, the venue and who you will potentially be rubbing shoulders with. If you want a visual, I suggest checking out our Pinterest boards where Kelly and I post outfit suggestions for both men and women.
The dress code for a conference can really be anything from business suits to jeans. Every conference I go to has a different dress code. You’ve got two options: you can pack for every conceivable option, or you can simply ask. Ask the organizers, Tweet your question out to the conference hashtag, or find someone who has gone before and ask them. If all else fails, go for business casual and combination outfits you can dress up or down with accessories.
Thanks for reading~
Q : "Is it OK to hit on a woman at a networking event?"
WOW…. I don’t even know where to start with this one…LOL OK, here is the deal, first of all the fact that you used the term “hit on” makes it an automatic NO from me. That is a dead giveaway that the primary reason you are attending the event is to meet your one main goal of the night and we all know what that is. Save those tactics for another time. Use your time at your networking event to meet good friends (male and female) and develop a more professional “self”. Should you meet someone that you would like to know better on a personal level than I would suggest you contact her after the event. Even if she doesn’t accept your offer she will certainly respect your approach more than if you put her in an awkward situation by coming on to her at a business type function.
Hitting on a woman at a networking event is a huge risk. Women don't go to networking events to get dates. They go to networking events because they want to make business connections. Even in today's progressive business culture, women often struggle to be taken seriously. Asking a woman on a date when she's trying to do business with you isn't just inappropriate – it's insulting. However, I spent my late twenties and early thirties single and I know that you can't help it when you meet someone you like — you want to ask them out. If you're going to do it, here is my advice:
1) Never use a "line". "Those are sexy boots" or "you have beautiful eyes" are completely inappropriate comments in a business environment. Don't try to get cute and don't use a bar pickup line at a networking event.
2) Be clear about your intentions. Asking someone out for coffee or lunch at a networking event is a fairly common thing. So if you want a date and not a business lunch, you need to be clear about it. Otherwise you could be in for a seriously awkward meal! You could say, "I'd like to get you know you better outside of business. Can we do coffee sometime?" (Yes, this takes guts. Don't chicken out!)
3) Don't address it at the networking event at all. Have a nice conversation with her and get her business card. Send her an email or call her up after the event and ask her out. Again, be clear about your intentions or she'll show up for a business lunch. No woman likes to feel as if they were "tricked" into a date.
Thanks for reading~