Throughout the course of a conference, you will talk to dozens of people, exchanging business cards with many and remembering very few. Most people will be lucky to stay in touch with even one person they meet at a conference this year.
How is it possible that an event based on sharing information and making connections yields such meager results? The answer lies in networking. So many people are focused on growing their network and talking to everyone, they skimp on the quality of those connections.
If you want to walk away from your next conference with quality contacts that last, follow these steps to make an impact.
Networking is Valuable Throughout Your Career
It doesn’t matter if you’re just starting at a company or are a few years from retirement, networking can provide value, both professionally and personally. In fact, the majority of all jobs — a full 85 percent — are filled through networking, according to Lou Adler, CEO of Performance-based Hiring Learning Systems. This beats internal hires and cold applications by 7:1 in some instances.
While active applicants (people looking for jobs) have higher rates of success when applying, passive candidates land their roles through networking. Passive candidates are professionals not actively looking to change their current employment but are presented with an exciting opportunity.
Professor Julia Hobsbawm developed an interesting infographic on networking, showing that one in four professionals currently don’t network at all and more than half don’t have LinkedIn profiles.
A lack of networking holds people back even if they’re happy in their jobs. This is because networking goes beyond career advancement; making new connections also expands your knowledge base and can grow new business. Even if you plan to stay in your current company, the networking skills you develop as a lower-level employee can help move into and navigate the C-suite.
Networking Experts Struggle to Balance Quality and Quantity
While no one thinks quality networking is irrelevant when attending a conference, you can’t spend the entire time talking to only one person. Even if you want to, they probably don’t.
The team at Universal Class makes an argument for quantitative networking and how it drives exposure. The more people who know you, the more people will want to talk to you. Plus, talking to multiple people helps you weed out who is valuable.
This is why conferences have multiple social events and opportunities in which to mingle: these are quantitative networking events that lead to the qualitative discussions later.
Industry leaders go back and forth on whether networking is a numbers game or a qualitative effort. Jörgen Sundberg, CEO of Link Humans, says there are two schools of thought about LinkedIn connections:
Numbers don’t mean connections — how can one person form strong bonds with 500 people?
LinkedIn isn’t meant for strong bonds but rather dozens of opportunities, more like a Rolodex than a friends list.
At the root of this discussion is quality: how can you get the most out of people you are connected to?
BNI founder Ivan Misner says he even gets into disagreements with friends over the usefulness of having a large number of contacts. While contacts can be useful, they only become valuable when there’s a strong relationship that turns them into powerful connections.
Are you able to connect friends and colleagues with each other to form professional opportunities? Can you reach out to people when you need help? If the answer is no, then it doesn’t matter how many people you know, because the quality is lacking.
5 Steps to Improve the Quality of Your Networking
As you work your way through a conference, you have to balance quantity and quality. You can do this by making your conversations count. Follow these steps to improve your conversations and walk away with useful connections.
Plan Why and How You Want to Talk to Someone
Look at the list of attendees and determine who you want to talk to and why. This will give your networking purpose as you introduce yourself to those around the hall.
“When reaching out to someone you don’t yet know, it’s very important to have a clear reason why you want to meet this specific person,” Sarah Faulkner, founder of Faulkner Strategic Consulting, writes. “This is giving the person a reason why you need them specifically, and therefore, they will be more likely to give you some of their valuable time.”
She stresses that plenty of people have a shared hometown or alma mater, but that’s not always reason enough to meet someone. Along with planning why you want to speak to someone, prepare to pitch yourself to them clearly and professionally.
“This is not about getting your pitch word perfect or following a script, this is about putting across in a structured timely fashion your passion for what you do because that is what people connect to,” Suzi Fish, district conference marketing manager of Toastmasters, advises.
She has seen dozens of people ramble on, miss information, and forget what they’re saying midway, ruining their introduction and isolating the people they’re talking to.
Hold a Natural Conversation
Most of the executives and industry leaders you talk to will have attended conferences for years. They know what makes for great conversation and what is an introduction disguised as a sales pitch.
“Nobody wants to have a ‘networking conversation,’” Rich Stromback, investor and advisor, told the Harvard Business Review. “They are hungry for real conversations and real relationships... I put myself in the most target-rich area and then just go with the flow and spend time with who I enjoy.”
If people feel like they’re being “networked to,” or the only reason you’re talking to them is to build connections for future favors, then they’re unlikely to hang around for very long, and you will never form the relationship you want.
Bad conversations are commonplace at most conferences. They’re so common that Geoffrey James, author of Business Without the Bullsh*t, created a list of ways to get out of them. He even suggests escaping to the bathroom or pretending your phone is vibrating with a call in order to get away from people.
Bad conversations will do more than limit your networking ability, they will make you a conference pariah.
Actually Remember The People You Talk To
Brian D. Evans, founder of Influencive, says the goal of quantitative networking is to remember more than the person’s name and job title — especially at a conference where everyone is wearing badges with that information listed.
If you want to impress the people you talk to, remember and bring up some of the projects they’re working on, some major news about their company or something unique about their personal lives. They will walk away from a conference with dozens of people who know their name, but only one or two who remember beyond that.
Do your research beforehand. Get on Google and learn about the people you’re talking to.
Liz Elfman, founder and CEO of E-Squared Agency, says there’s no reason to ask basic questions about a company and what that person does. Instead, learn about it so you can skip the questions that a dozen other people have asked. If you want to have a deep conversation, ask deep questions.
Don’t Expect Immediate Favors From Your Connections
While you might attend a conference in hopes of finding a new job or mentor, you shouldn’t be on the prowl to find people who will help you out.
Alison Green, the “Ask a Boss” columnist, talks to people all the time in high-level positions who are constantly inundated with requests from new contacts. “There’s a huge epidemic of bad networking out there,” she says. People will pretend to ask for advice when they really just want to be hired or connected with someone who will hire them.
Instead, consider offering something of value to the people you talk to or an opportunity to help them, instead of just asking for something you want.
“In order to network strategically, you must be able to build your network before you need it,” Kevin Kermes at Career Attraction writes. “You have to become comfortable with meeting people and cultivating relationships with no specific purpose.”
Cultivate Your New Contacts After You Leave
Networking doesn’t stop once you leave the conference, or even once you step out of the hall that day. It should continue through the event and after you return home.
“A great first impression won’t instantly lead to an irreplaceable contact,” David Sturt, author of Great Work: How to Make a Difference People Love, and Todd Nordstrom, write. “Would you do a professional favor for someone you’ve only met once, briefly, even if you had a great five-minute chat? Probably not.”
Instead, the follow-up is what is important. The quantitative needs to become qualitative. Consider sending a follow-up email or reaching out to meet them again to continue networking and building your relationship.
“Making new contacts helps – but it can be a waste of time if you’re not maximizing the old ones,” Jo Clarkson, director of The Alternative Board Leeds Central writes.
Just by sharing relevant articles or checking in every few months, you will foster existing contacts and grow stronger connections than most other attendees. You don’t have to live near people to network successfully. Plus, when you do see those contacts again at another conference, you’re ready and able to pick up where you left off last.