The spring conference season is about to hit full swing.
Austin, Texas, will be abuzz March 11-20 for SXSW. This year’s featured speakers include renowned director J.J. Abrams; Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media; and Biz Stone, co-founder of Medium, Twitter and Jelly.
Thousands of business professionals in industries from venture capital to advertising to software development are expected to attend, and if previous attendance figures hold true, about 23 percent of SXSW Interactive attendees in executive positions will be CEOs.
With so many conferences coming up, don’t forget to brush up on your networking skills. To maximize your next conference experience, follow these tips:
1. Focus on helping others.
I once made a complete fool of myself at a conference by approaching a speaker only to blast him with every detail I could about my company and my product. In less than two minutes, I’d quashed what could have been a great relationship by acting like a self-promotional robot.
When you meet someone, instead of blasting him with your accomplishments, ask yourself, “What is one thing I can do for this person?” The law of reciprocity is a powerful tool in business, and the person to whom you offer help is much more likely to remember you in a positive light. Jessica Herrin, founder and CEO of Stella & Dot, once told me, “Every time you meet someone new, ask yourself, ‘Are they going to be a domino or a linchpin in my success story?’”
2. Aim for quality over quantity.
When I began building my company, I devoured every business-building book I could get my hands on. But one networking book offered me terrible advice -- it urged me to go out there, shake hands and collect as many business cards as possible at every event. Unfortunately, desperately collecting contact information is annoying at best and creepy at worst.
Instead, focus on making three genuine connections at an event. Ignore the pressure to “work the room”; instead, engage in deep, enjoyable conversations. Relationships are the foundation of networking, so dig in and move past surface-level chatter. Fellow entrepreneur Sue Olsta Crockett Mason, owner and gynecological surgeon at Virtuosa Gyn, encourages conference-goers to build trust by showing vulnerability through sharing their personal stories. Let others into your life, and they’ll let you into theirs.
3. Ask for what you want.
A dear friend and fellow entrepreneur Shuly Oletzky impressed me with her ability to take initiative at conferences.
Shuly recently attended the GrowCo Conference. After the CEO of Spark City, Lisa Hendrickson, spoke about pricing strategies at a recent conference, Oletzky approached Hendrickson, thanking her for the valuable session. Oletzky asked whether Hendrickson would be willing to discuss a few of the topics in greater depth, and the two quickly bonded. Then, after the conference was over, Oletzky reached out to Hendrickson, and so began their tight-knit relationship.
4. Take initiative.
Think in advance about how you’ll demonstrate leadership, foresight and generosity at the conference. For example, a colleague of mine impressed me by making a 10-person advanced dinner reservation for the evening of the conference.
As she met interesting people during the day, she invited them to dinner. At the meal, she worked to break the ice with her fun personality. Her dinner company left with full stomachs, an appreciation for her leadership and new connections of their own.
Related: Become a Networking Beast by Following This 5-Step Plan
5. Don’t hide your personality.
Sue Kallamadi, owner of Trunk Up, likes to start her conference prep with her suitcase. She chooses bright colors or fun patterns to complement her vibrant personality. According to Kallamadi, a well-thought-out wardrobe shows people you’re confident and true to yourself, making them feel more comfortable networking with you. Design unique business cards or bring a few samples of your product to be both on-brand and on-style.
Forging meaningful connections with strangers is scary, and I’ve felt more than a few nervous butterflies at big conferences. But you didn’t attend the conference just to collect a few new business cards. If a speaker piques your interest, don’t be afraid to approach her, and be sure to stay connected after the conference. Take the initiative to improve your skills, and make 2016 the year you master conference networking.