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Navigating and Networking at ConferencesNavigating and Networking at Conferences

By Julia HubbelBy Julia Hubbel

The greatest value anyone derives from attending a conference is the networking. A conference is the best opportunity for participants to come together to share ideas, learn from each other, create new opportunities for jobs, problem-solving and the creation of lifelong friendships.

What is networking? Networking as a term didn't enter the general vernacular until about 1966. It means the passing along of information, ideas and contacts from one person to another, and then possibly to more people, according to Donna Fisher, in Professional Networking for Dummies. She adds, "Every time someone shares an idea or contact with you, you are on the receiving end of networking. Every time you give someone support, encouragement, or a recommendation, you are on the giving end of networking. For many people, however, networking got its reputation in the 1980s where it became known as a pushy, "it's all about me" exercise, a hard sell where only the aggressive sales types could win at the game. Networking got a bad reputation. Also, networking involves the risk of rejection.

A New York Times article described 75% of the American public as more afraid to enter a room full of strangers than they were to speak in public. More people are afraid of death than they are of speaking in public. Networking, which involves reaching out to others and offering up ourselves to be accepted and liked, is risky business, and for many, just too scary a proposition. That's why, when it comes to social occasions, many people stick with standing with friends, acquaintances, even people they don't particularly like in order to avoid having to mix with strangers!

Navigating the conference
Navigating the conference begins with a clear intention . What is it that you're here to accomplish? Are you here to find a new job? Make new contacts? Solve a problem? What is the purpose of your attendance? It's essential to have a focused outcome for your participation at the conference so that you can make the most of the contacts that you make. This allows you to choose the right events to attend, the most beneficial workshops and meet the right people.

Navigating also starts with a road map. By the time you arrive at the conference, you should have a good idea of whom you would like to meet among the speakers and presenters. These are leaders in their fields and terrific contacts for you. Often they are very open to meeting audience members and sometimes are willing to stay in touch. Certainly they are willing to talk, many have websites, blogs and newsletters they can put you to keep you informed of their ideas and materials. Don't hang back- walk right up and get yourself introduced to them. Speakers like the attention and appreciate it when audience members show interest and enthusiasm.

Navigating the crowd starts with a positive attitude about yourself, and what you have to offer. Too many people think that networking is hard work, and that you have to be charming and witty to carry it off, and that it's the exclusive realm of those with brilliant personalities. That couldn't be further from the truth.

The ability to navigate a group of people at any conference begins with the knowledge that you have something of value to offer, and that it's not about you, it's always about the other person.

Networking at the conference
Networking always is, and always will be, about the other person: how you make them feel, how you help them be at ease, how you help them talk about themselves, and how you allow them to feel good about themselves. That makes you a great conversationalist, and along the way you will learn a great many things that you will want to ask more about, comment upon and make conversation about.

The trick is to get past the everyday language of the business card. Business cards are a way to stay in touch, not exclusively to begin a conversation, although that's how we most often use them. Business cards all too often give us reasons to dump the conversation because we immediately judge the other person by what's on the card, not by whom the other person is. What if this man or woman happens to know the person we're trying to meet and we dismiss them because they're not the right title? The card only gives us contact information. It's not the best starting point. The human being is, and we should give him/her a chance.

You can begin any conversation at the conference with a comment about the event itself because you have that in common- the speakers, the breakout sessions, the programs. That's a bonding experience. You probably have an industry in common, and you can develop many lines of communication from there. Try to find out some things you have in common beyond work- ideas, food, movies, life stuff. The things that allow us to be friends. I often use a tactic that is surprising but almost always works- I share something that people typically never guess about me as an ice breaker, and that's a conversation jump starter.

When you go beyond just work and develop the human connection, you are building the life bridges that take you to the long term connections that stand the test of time, and go well beyond the limits of the conference time frame.

When you've made a special contact, exchange cards, and make a note of what is special about this person on that card so you don't forget. And always, always send a personal note. In this age of emails, a physical note makes all the difference.

Before you leave this conversation, make sure you compliment this person you have met on something you have been impressed with about him or her. This is an aspect of charisma- that wonderful element that is actually available to everyone. It's the ability to make others feel great about themselves when they walk away from you. All it takes is a moment of giving- giving a compliment, giving a bit of admiration on our part, to leave someone feeling terrific about themselves, a bit larger as a person, and they won't forget you. Remember, it's not all about you- it's about making others feel good about having been around you.

When to network at the conference
Breakfast is a great time to catch people and do your networking. Many people arrive early and are lively, ready to meet and chat. Lunchtime means rushing off to make calls, and if you haven't made the most of your breaks to capture a lunch date you could be lunching alone or trying to find an empty seat and making new friends at the table. If that's you, don't crawl into yourself. Quickly introduce yourself to your table and act like the table host. Take charge, make it easy for your table to get acquainted. People appreciate it if the table is having a hard time making friends when someone opens up the conversation. If not, join in the fun and don't sit back and be quiet. Let people know who you are and that you want to be part of everything that is going on.

During the day, take advantage of every opportunity to make connections with new people so that you can organize a drink or dinner with a new friend during the evening. Don't find yourself alone in your hotel room or at home at night during the conference- that's precious meeting time lost! Here are hundreds, perhaps thousands of your peers and industry leaders to choose from, many who can add tremendous value to your career, and you have no business having a free night! Get busy!

Your greatest weapon
Ultimately, your greatest weapon in navigating and networking is the combination of a genuine smile and a genuine interest in people. The people who are standing by themselves are just like you- they want to meet people, too, and are perhaps too shy to do so. Make it easy for them. Smile, walk up and introduce yourself. Ask them some questions and get the conversation going, and you'll be the hero. Along the way, you'll meet some terrific people and transform your experience of the conference. The more you take charge of your networking, the easier it gets. And if you take responsibility for introducing other people to those you have met, it gets easier still. That way you effectively become a "host," and draw even more people to you, and it builds your confidence.

Your success at a conference depends directly on how well you navigate and network. It's about the people, the relationships, the connections, not just the great information. The conference offers you the chance to expand your opportunities beyond your wildest imagination if you are willing to extend your hand and meet the amazing people at this event. Start with your clear intention- know your purpose in being there- and then make it your purpose to meet those people who will help you achieve that purpose. Leave a legacy of value with those you meet along the way. Follow up with notes and stay in touch. And come back next year to people who will remember you with pleasure and regard.

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