Six tips to get the most out of meeting new people

Conferences are a fantastic channel to network. As a professional speaker and science writer, I attend anywhere from five to ten conferences a year and I am a card-carrying conference junkie. I love the talks, the energy, even the £10 ham sandwiches (and if I am in Italy, the wine). But I am most smitten with the people – I am appreciative of the opportunity to meet, interact and converse with a diversity of driven, ambitious, brilliant nerds. From these interactions, I get ideas. I get inspiration. I get invaluable insight. And I get access to hidden opportunities which ultimately can advance my career. But it all starts with the idea of the win–win partnership as the essence of networking.

You must approach networking with the mindset of aiming to find people with whom you can collaborate and for whom you can provide value, as opposed to the idea that you are trying to mine the crowd for a job or a fellowship. When you adopt a networking mantra of ‘how can I help’ versus ‘what can I acquire’, networking becomes a magical vessel that opens you up to riches beyond your wildest dreams. Since networking is about crafting mutually beneficial alliances, when you network strategically at conferences, in particular, you are able to learn strategic information that can translate to professional victory. And then there’s the other fantastic value in networking – you might just make a new friend! But you must start with the concept that you don’t expect any materials goods and services from anyone.

Not everyone is comfortable with attending a scientific meeting packed with thousands and walking into a mixer of hundreds. So as you prep for your next conference, here are a few of my favourite tips and tactics for successful networking at conferences:

Show up early to speeches

Arrive about 10 minutes or so before a presentation is scheduled to begin. As I enter the room, there is usually a smattering of folks who are also early go-getters. I will sit near them, introduce myself and ask a few questions:, such as: ‘Have you heard this speaker before?’ and ‘Do you know this person’s research?’

This is a great tip for networking newbies because it has an expiration date – when the speaker begins his or her presentation, you immediately have to shut up. Talk about a fabulous exit strategy!

Use ‘action nodes’ to fuel conversations

I define an ‘action node’ as anything at a meeting that people can talk about: the queue for the food, drinks, registration and so forth. All of these nodes give you something to immediately discuss. For those who are unsure of what to say when you first meet someone, this can provide the kindle. ‘Boy, that hummus looks delicious. I’m Alaina.’

Promote your oral and poster presentations

A great tactic to foster your own networking engagements is to market your presentations in advance and during the conference. You can tweet out and email invitations to attend, stating when and where your poster exhibition or talk is taking place. One of my favourite tactics is to put a sticker on the back of my business card with the information about the presentations (title, date, time and location) so that as I meet new people I can invite them to my talk. It’s a great – and totally appropriate – manner to network and promote yourself to new collaborators.

Be proactive

Contact people in advance with whom you would like to chat. Ask if you can meet for a coffee while you’re both at the meeting. Specify you only want 15 minutes of their time – most people can’t spare an hour at a scientific meeting, but they almost always can pop 15 minutes into their schedule. If they can’t make it, put a note on your calendar for next year’s conference to invite them for coffee at next year’s event.

Alternatively, contact the organisation and ask if you can host a dinner. I have found that when it comes to networking at events, sometimes the biggest, best and most comfortable are the ones I organise myself. You should also look out for underadvertised mixers and dinners, often promoted on Twitter or bulletin boards.

Follow up!

It is not enough to go to the conference and then never speak to the people you meet again. Make sure you send them a follow up email approximately one week after the extravaganza (giving them time to catch up on the work they missed because of their attendance). And then ask ‘I’d love to continue our discussion. Is it possible to make a short phone or Skype appointment?’ After this meeting, send them a thank you email or note, connect with them on LinkedIn, and then contact them a few weeks before the conference next year so you can make a coffee appointment with them at the event itself.

Take a break

Finally, give yourself a break during the actual conference. It is easy to become overstimulated and overwhelmed from speaking, meeting and chatting – so give yourself a night off. It is not uncommon for me to spend the first couple of nights of a conference going to dinners and hospitality suites and then, on the third day, to grab a takeaway and crawl into my hotel. The next day I wake up refreshed, recharged and ready.

I have had terrific experiences networking at conferences. You can too, if you approach it with the right attitude. So the next time you are getting ready for a conference, remember what to do: go open-minded, enjoy the honour of meeting other smart folk, and keep your eye out for opportunities when you can help others succeed.

Author’s note

Some concepts appearing in this article have also appeared in other works by the author, including her book, Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), her career columns for Physics Today, and other publications.