The Introvert's Guide to Networking at a Conference
Few things break me out in hives more than conference attendance. Usually in a space you’ve never been, with the goal of meeting people you’ve never met, and substantively getting something out of it for you and your team. It’s a lot for an introvert to juggle. Today I made it through a major finance conference and by the end of the day, was reflecting a little bit on how I’ve built a lot of courage up in these situations over the years. Today, I was chatting up strangers, trading business cards, inviting myself to lunch tables—all things that even a few years ago would have felt really overwhelming and that I might have been to shy to do.
I’ll never be the gal who feels completely comfortable networking with people at conferences. But, I can definitely see how practice has made me better at it. These are the things I’ve realized I’m doing differently, that still honors my introvert self but gets the job done in new networking situations.
1 | Pre-Game My Purse
Fumbling with a phone, business cards, and purse goodies is not chill. I always take a little time to set up my bag so my essentials are close at hand and I’m not fumbling with things as I reach to make introductions or grab cards. I also set up two places in my wallet or traveling pouch — one place I keep my cards and a separate place I keep the business cards of others. There’s nothing worse than handing over a business card and it being the one of the gal you just met a few booths ago.
While we’re at it, purse over the right arm, any coffee in the left hand so you’re quickly ready for an introduction handshake. If possible, pick a jacket with pockets so you can move like a man and it’s a quicker reach to grab for a business card after an introduction. This might feel like a lot of detail, but having my personal “system” staged makes such a difference in my confidence level walking in the door.
2 | Do the LinkedIn Intro Pre-Conference
As an introvert, measuring success by volume of introductions and meetings doesn’t work for me. Instead, I need to be really thoughtful about exactly what I want to get out of the conference. That means potentially reaching out beforehand to people I am sure I want to meet with a quick LinkedIn intro. Many times, conference organizers can at least give you names or companies who are registered to attend. Dropping someone a line asking what sessions they’re attending and mentioning that you’d like to hear their view about xyz emerging issue in you industry is a great ice breaker. It also gives you someone to hunt down at the conference when dead air inevitably strikes and you get a little fidgety.
3 | Sit By the Tech “Command Center”
This one happened to me accidentally once and now it’s a trick I use every time I’m at an event. There will usually be somewhere toward the side or back of the room where speakers mic up, and where the conference organizers are shuffling people around and giving timing notes, etc. This is the perfect spot to sit close to and be well-positioned to introduce yourself to speakers after they come off stage.
A few minutes after they come off the stage, they’re usually still loitering around and I’ll pop up really quickly with one of my business cards in hand, and briefly introduce myself with a line like “Thank you so much for that great point about xyz. I had a few follow up questions, would you mind if I found you at a break?” They’ll of course say yes and this gives you an amazing opportunity to hit them up separately. If you happen to not catch them, it also gives you a reason to follow up on LinkedIn or with an email after the conference. This also leads me to…..
4 | Give to Get
I used to feel weird asking people for a card. (Ugh, do they even want to give one to me?! Are they saving them for people they want to meet?) This is of course ridiculous, but nevertheless, the self talk that sometimes runs through the brain at these things! Instead, I started to figure out that it’s pretty much a natural human reaction that if you hand someone your card they’ll politely hand you one back.
So that’s my new card game. After an appropriate amount of chatting with anyone and where you have an obviously reasonably friendly vibe going (frankly, even if it’s not terribly warm) a quick - “Oh! Let me give you my card….” shows confidence, like you have something to say, and that certainly you’re someone whose card would be well-received by any reasonable human. They’ll instinctively reach for theirs, and boom. Traded.
This has worked best for me in places where the person is more senior and there’s a bit of a power distance gap. Most of those folks get a little put off because often people asking for a card are usually on a job hunt or want something out of them. Offering yours first is a little more innocuous way to get to the same end game.
5 | Make a Mantra
I need a little inspo in my head when I march into these things. Whatever my need is for the day, I try to set up something specific for wherever I’m at. Today’s was, “My team is counting on me to bring back insights and connections that can further the projects we have in process.” Connecting the day to something a little bigger than just coffee and chatter gives it a larger mission and purpose that helps me push through any uncomfortable social moments. Tailoring it to whatever the situation is also helps it from getting stale if you’re on this circuit a lot!
6 | Set a Goal and Get Out
As mentioned, this is not a high volume contact game for me. I will not be the last girl at happy hour, I’m not the first at breakfast. I have a few set goals for these events and then I let myself get the heck out. This conferences’ goal was that I wanted business cards from 10 vendors and 10 clients. I also wanted to meet one person who was a an expert in data science operations and one woman (a tall order with this crew, actually) who was in a senior leadership position and who could casually share some insights on hiring and diversity in this industry.
This level of focus gives my mind something else to do all day as well as I plot how I’m going to achieve these goals, and, how I share them along with others I meet. For example, in random vendor chats today I was able to say, “I’m working on a new project on diversity in investment management; have you met anyone today that you think I should be on the look out for in that space?” People are naturally inclined to help make those connections and you might be surprised that you get other offers to introduce you to people who never even show up at the conference. Over email of course. Sigh. So much better.