Focus

Conference Networking: It’s in the Planning

by Kent R. Davies

Meet new colleagues. Renew old acquaintances. Learn new skills. Develop problem-solving strategies. Re-energize personally and professionally. These are opportunities unique to conferences and conventions.

Professional conferences provide a place to interact with colleagues who face the same challenges you do on a daily basis. Networking at conferences allows you to build a resource pool of people, ideas and advice that can lead to a solution to a nagging problem, a new job opportunity or a new friendship.

By setting specific pre-conference goals, you can focus on maximizing your opportunities at the conference. Don’t be among the highly motivated people who make the mistake of attempting to do everything and meet everybody.

Time to Network

Before you arrive, ask yourself: What are my personal and professional goals? Who can help me meet those goals?

“Your conference objectives should reflect specific projects you’re working on, whether you’re seeking research data on reading programs or selecting an architect for a new school,” recommends D. Sharon Hill, a former superintendent and host of KXAM’s popular education radio show “Learning Vistas” in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Networking expert Donna Messer, president of ConnectUs Communications in Oakville, Ontario, suggests pre-conference networking tactics like obtaining a list of attendees and highlighting those whom you know and those whom you want to know.

Then as early as possible before the conference, contact those people with whom you hope to connect. Messer suggests when setting up the meeting that you let them know a little bit about you and why you want to meet so they will be prepared to add value to the meeting.

Do your homework. If a presenter on your list has written a book, Messer suggests reading it in advance and commenting on it when setting up the meeting. Most important, she says, is to “come prepared to share your resources and your knowledge. You will get more in return when you offer to share.”

 

Working the Floor

Time is precious. As you network, try to present your case in 10 seconds or less. For instance, when asked what you do, reply with a short infomercial like: “Thanks for asking. My name is Theresa Cruz and I’m the assistant superintendent for curriculum for Iowa’s Twin Rivers School District. We are a rapidly growing multicultural suburban district with 1,200 special-needs students.” These three informative sentences help determine whether continuing this discussion will be mutually productive.

Successful networking is based on good listening techniques, which include watching facial expressions, hand gestures, body posture, voice inflections and even eye movements. Listen for key points and clarify any confusion by asking follow-up questions. Respond enthusiastically to colleagues’ suggestions or insights, but never interrupt or second guess.

Hill recommends that attendees have a goal of exchanging information with at least five new acquaintances each day and joining people you don’t know for two meals a day.

“Listen more than you talk and pay attention to your new acquaintances’ particular needs and interests,” she says. “Be specific about potential projects and collaborations. If you establish common interests, exchange business cards and ask whether they prefer being contacted by e-mail or phone.”

Keep in mind that it is not the number of people you meet but whom and the positive impressions you leave with them. Networking is about exploring the experience of others, testing new ideas and sharing resources.

Messer stresses the importance of treating everyone in your network as equals. “There is no real value in title or prestige alone. A network is not a bureaucracy or a hierarchy. It is a level and fair playing field. Value is in the information and support people can give, and that often comes from surprising sources. Find common interests and watch your value grow.”

 

Fifteen Seconds

Psychologists tell us it takes less than 15 seconds for others to form an impression of us based on what they see. In those 15 seconds people assume our social status, our economic status, our educational level and our likelihood of success. Image shouldn't matter, but it does.

What impression will you make in both planned and unplanned interactions with colleagues?

“How you dress, how you think and how you act affects how others respond to you,” says corporate image consultant Juanita Ecker of Troy, N.Y. “Your attire, body language, etiquette skills and conversation skills will help or hinder your professional image,” she says. That’s why it is important that you plan your conference attire carefully.

Be conservative in your choice of clothing,” Ecker recommends. “Find out ahead of time what events you’ll be attending and each event’s appropriate dress code. You want to make sure that you have a variety of clothing that will be appropriate for various social events. Pack at least one casual outfit, one business casual outfit and one business suit.”

Upon arriving home immediately follow up with handwritten notes and phone calls to cement your new relationships. Follow through with promised resources and, if necessary, gently remind them about their commitments to you. With some pre-planning and honed communication skills, you can multiply the benefits of attending and networking at conferences.

 

Kent Davies is a business management writer in Phoenix, Ariz.. E-mail: krdavies@usa.net