How to Make an Impression at a Crowded Conference
Some of us go to conferences to hear industry leaders wax poetic about the newest, hottest and soon-to-emerge trends in our fields. Some of us go specifically to work the room, connecting with like minds and building strategic relationships. If you ask me, conferences are only worth the time and registration fees if you’re going for both learning and linking.
I’ve been attending large and small conferences since high school, with topics ranging from racial equity to technology and design. Regardless of the theme, the format doesn't vary a ton. It’s a lot of waking up at the crack of dawn on the opening day so you can tackle registration lines, sifting through the schedule, listening to speakers and moderated panels, jotting down some standout quotes, and downing all the free coffee and tea in the lobby between sessions.
You could leave it at that, or you could walk into every conference or convention you attend with a strategy for making meaningful connections and leaving a positive impression. You never know who’s in the room at these things. From angel investors to potential employers or brand partners, you could be one brief conversation away from an opportunity that thrusts your career forward. Here’s how to make sure you don’t miss that chance.
1) GET OFF THE WALL
You’re bound to have some down time at a conference before, between, or after your sessions. Challenge yourself to initiate one or two conversations with people you don’t know during each break. Find out what their profession or expertise is and what drew them to the event. Even if every introduction doesn’t lead to a suitable connection, making sure you interact with other attendees gives you a chance to practice how you present yourself.
2) ASK THOUGHTFUL QUESTIONS
This particular strategy has been, hands down, the most impactful technique for making an impression in my experience. Most sessions at a conference allow time for the audience to ask questions at the end. While listening to a speaker or panel, note parts of the talk that stand out to you and write down at least one thoughtful question. Now, I don’t mean formulate a question to which you already know the answer just so that you can throw some rhetoric around and show off your intelligence. That’s not so much a thoughtful question as it is a passive aggressive, humble brag. Instead, choose a specific quote or idea that you heard and ask the speaker to expand upon it, clarify it or relate it to another idea. When the time comes for you to ask your question out loud, annunciate clearly, share your name and your profession or expertise, briefly summarize the context that inspired your question, and then ask away. The benefits of asking a thoughtful question in a crowded room are that you get to introduce who you are to everyone, including the speaker(s), and show that you are an active listener and critical thinker.
3) STICK AROUND
I understand that some folks get antsy sitting in one spot for too long and their first instinct when a session ends is to dart out of the room and go find a snack. If this is you, try to fight the urge to flee. Stick around at the end of a session and personally introduce yourself to the speaker(s). Take a moment to let them know that something they said really resonated with you. Ask a question you may not have gotten to ask during the Q&A. Make sure you’re not dominating too much of their time and don’t overwhelm them with a stale, rehearsed pitch. But do show genuine curiosity and investment in the topic at hand. Remember to relax, speak slowly, and make eye contact.
Feeling ready for conference season? Check out these tips from Forbes, too!