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Help! I’ve Forgotten How to Network!

There have been many jokes and memes about how we have all forgotten the most basic of social skills after being locked down for two years.

But in all seriousness, it sometimes feels like when you don’t flex a certain “muscle,” you forget how to use it. In some ways, the last two years have really dragged on, but in others, they’ve flown by. So it can come as a surprise when you’re getting excited to return to that first in-person event only to realize that you may feel a little rusty.

With our Annual Conference coming up in just over two weeks, it got me thinking about some of the best practices for networking that we have jettisoned during the pandemic and need to reintegrate into our repertoires. Let’s look at some conferences dos!

  • Make eye contact when you’re speaking with someone and watch your body language – even if you aren’t sure if it’s a valuable connection right off the bat, treat everyone as if they’re the most important person you’ll speak to that day. We’ve gotten used to multitasking while we’re on Zoom calls and so it may be uncomfortable to look strangers in the eye again, but the more we practice, the better we’ll get.
  • Come prepared – look through the attendee list in advance and choose five people that you want to make sure to meet before the end of the conference. Do a little digging before you meet them to connect with them on LinkedIn and review their bios.
  • Know what your “headline” is – Have one short sentence that describes you, your practice and how you help clients (the keys here being “short” and “how you help clients”). This may have changed since the start of the pandemic, so it’s a good time to review what you normally tell people to ensure it reflects your current role.
  • Connect to attendees on social media, especially LinkedIn.
  • I used to say that it was essential to attend every event on the schedule, whether it seemed of interest to you or not. And while I do believe that’s a strong way to get the most value out of an event, I have a bit of a different perspective coming out of the pandemic – so my advice instead is this: pace yourself. When we were in the throes of events, networking, and conferencing in the past, it’s not too difficult to be on the go all the time. But two years of constant low-grade worry and anxiety is wearing, and you may not have the energy for a multi-day conference like you used to. So rest when you can, hit your self-care marks, and focus on those portions of the event that will both bring you joy and the potential for business.
  • Have a few ice breakers prepared, in case there’s a conversational lull. For some of you, this may be a foreign feeling, but for those of us who are introverts, it can help to have these in your back pocket (mentally) – things like “is this your first time to x city?” or “is this your first x conference?” That way, if it’s someone you don’t know too well, and you run out of things to talk about, but you don’t want the conversation to end yet, you have a couple of ideas prepared. You may be itching to get back to networking in-person again, but since we don’t seem to do that much small talk these days, it may help to give this some advance thought. And one final note – bonus points if you stay away from the topic of the virus and how it’s impacted you over the last two years – we’ve been discussing this ad nauseum during our virtual events and many people are looking for something more unique to discuss.
  • Wear your name tag constantly. It identifies you as a conference participant, so even an elevator ride becomes an opportunity to network. You won’t automatically have your Zoom handle on display, so your name tag is the next best thing.
  • I used to suggest bringing business cards and I’m sure people still will. But many people are still being cautious about social distancing and giving things to each other. Don’t let this mean that you don’t exchange information with someone – instead, ensure to connect on LinkedIn on the spot or air drop your contact information to each other. Set up a follow up note for yourself so that this isn’t just a drive-by connection.
  • Introduce yourself to the organizers and speakers if the opportunity presents itself – don’t interrupt them in the middle of a busy time, but let them know who you are, that you appreciate their speech, or hard work, and in the case of the organizers, if there’s anyone you’d like them to connect you with. Especially post-pandemic, event organizers and speakers are eager to get back to business and hear that you support their event and how they can help to make it more bespoke for you.
  • FOLLOW UP. Send an email, mail a thank you note with a photo from the conference, share an article you had talked about – don’t let that new connection falter. I say this a lot here, but while it’s possible to get business on the spot from someone, it’s more likely that you need to create and foster relationships in order to make them valuable.

And a couple of bonus don’ts for those of you looking to get extra points!

  • Normally I’d say “don’t sit in your hotel room” and instead hang out in the lobby or public spaces with your name tag if you’re at a conference – depending on where you are, this may be challenging, given mask mandates and space limitations. If you’re somewhere that is still seeing higher numbers or you are immune-compromised yourself, use technology to connect you instead when you have downtime that you’re looking to use to network. Check out the conference app, message new contacts that you’ve connected to on LinkedIn, or post a message to your social media that suggests you’d like to hang out in the hotel bar to chat. Bumping into people used to be easier, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be creative!
  • Don’t spend time only with your friends. While it’s a time to reconnect, if you spend the entire conference with the colleague from down the hall, you’re not networking with new potential avenues for business. Yes, it’s difficult to break out of your comfort zone and talk to new people, sit down next to someone else at the business session, eat with different people at meals, etc. But that’s why you’re at this conference. So do it. This can be extra hard after two years of not seeing people if you’re going to a repeat event. There is always room for reconnecting with friends – but make sure to include some new connections in there as well! If necessary, build in some extra time for your travels so that you can see your friends first.
  • Don’t be a speed networker. While you do want to meet as many people as you can, it’s more valuable to have deeper conversations with fewer people than to thrust your business card at 20 people as you’re moving on to the next person.  The people that do the latter are only memorable because they’re considered rude, and their cards generally end up forgotten or in the garbage. Make memorable, instead of trying to make many, connections. I get the sense that we’re all doing things at a more purposeful pace these days as well, so this will be especially useful as we come back to networking.
  • Don’t focus only on yourself. The most memorable people you meet are the ones who make you feel special, and that happens when you spend time focusing on the other person. So ask questions, probe deeper into the answers that they give (without being too nosy or personal), and get them talking about the things they’re passionate about. We’ve learned how to do this better (I think!) in the last two years, as we’ve gotten a glimpse into people’s homes through their camera lenses. It’s time to take the lessons that we’ve learned and apply them back in person.

Critically, I think, is the idea that things have changed and WE have changed over the last two years. We are all more careful about what we attend and why, and with whom. So when a conference or an event comes up on your agenda, it’s worthwhile considering whether it’s something that will bring you joy as well as business – who says we can’t do both?

Once you’ve made that decision, know that you’ll be there with other people who have likely weighed their choices similarly and so you’re all motivated to find value and enjoy each other’s company. It’s okay to have fun AND network and we’ll be back to doing it like pros again in no time.