The Surprising, Hidden Return on Investment of Optimizing Your Conference Participation
No matter where you are in your career, and no matter what career (or careers) you choose to pursue, you will always have to attend conferences. And when I use the phrase “have to,” I mean it emphatically- participating in and, indeed, contributing to, formal gatherings of professionals within a certain vocation is a requirement for excelling in that vocation. Conferences provide singular opportunities for both early-career and established leaders in a field to develop new skills, gain insight into critical trends and issues, access and learn from decision-makers and stars, appropriately promote yourself and your brand, and discover opportunities that can lead to employment, awards, and other game-changing career experiences.
All of these opportunities fall under the banner of networking. Don’t think that just because you are currently not on the job market or that you are not presenting a poster or a talk, that, if the option is available to you to go to a conference, you don’t have to partake. Keeping abreast of important conferences, and attending, contributing to, and following up from these meetings should be a major element of your career strategy, and your central focus when you make plans to attend any meeting is to network – that is, to build mutually-beneficial partnerships with others, that deliver value to both parties. The conference is special because it serves as something I like to refer to as a “Networking Node,” in that it aggregates people of a likeminded discipline or industry together in one location, which makes networking extremely efficient.
Since there is only a finite time for the actual conference, you have to optimize your time before, during and after to ensure you get the most out of it, and contribute the most to it. Below are some tips that will enable you to do just this and to help set you on the path of success, no matter what field or sector you hitch your wagons to.
- Start by going through the scientific program well in advance. Don’t do this on the airplane to the meeting city. Instead, give yourself about a month in advance to download the conference app, and start reading through the program very carefully to assemble your schedule. Make time in your schedule to not only attend scientific talks, but also posters, special events, such as town halls, career events, meet and greets and other networking-centered affairs. And don’t forget to schedule in time to walk the exhibit hall, poster farm, and between sessions.
- Make use of the conference app. There is often hidden treasure to be found within the app that you don’t realize until you explore it. For example, some apps list every attendee and their contact information and allow you to send messages within the system. Others allow you to tweet and follow other social media sites directly from the app itself. They also announce events and activities and can even give you insight into transportation options to get to and from the convention center.
- Reach out to people ahead of time. Request appointments with people at least 2-3 weeks before the conference. They are busy too, so you want to make sure that you get on their calendar and you have that face time with them at the meeting. The conference itself serves as a reason to make cold calls, which is especially great for introverts. And even if the person you want to meet is not on the program, i.e. they aren’t speaking or giving a poster, assume that he/ she will be at the meeting. Reach out to them; ask if they will be attending, and if so, whether their schedule would allow a meeting.
- Ask for a short appointment, such as a coffee meeting. They may not have time for a lunch or dinner, but they probably can squeeze in a 15 minute coffee appointment with you. But even if you only ask for 15 minutes, don’t schedule every single minute. You need time to digest what each encounter offers and to physically move to the next location. And you also want to have windows in your schedule just in case something special comes up, like you see Dr. God walking down the hall by herself. So you request 15 minutes, but give yourself 45 minutes or an hour just in case the meeting runs over.
- Leverage the exhibit hall. Don’t just wander aimlessly looking for free pens. Especially for large conferences like the AGU Fall Meeting, which has hundreds of exhibitors, carefully study the list of exhibiters and check out the map of where the ones you really want to visit are located. Make a plan to visit booths which are of primary, secondary and tertiary importance to you.
- Explore the poster farm. Plan to mosey through the poster farm and take a careful look at what’s being presented and by whom. Not only will you get new ideas of research directions and trends being contemplated by professionals in the field, but you will also have a fantastic networking opportunity. The people presenting the posters want to talk to someone, so if you offer to that chance they will be thrilled to chat about their work!
- Don’t eat alone. During mealtimes at almost all conferences, attendees flow into restaurants within a few block radius of a convention center. You can identify them as conference participants because they tend to keep their nametags visible. So if you see someone from the meeting eating alone, don’t be afraid to go up to them and ask “do you mind if I join you?”. This could be in a formal restaurant or it could be along the hallway of the convention center near the concessions. Either way, chances are they will answer “sure, please do”, and it gives you a chance to meet someone new and not eat alone. Don’t be tempted to spend your lunch hour reading email when there is networking gold to be had right next to you.
- Bring business cards, and if you are giving a talk or a poster, put a sticker on the back of your card with the name, date, time, and location of your presentation. This way, whenever you hand out your card you can easily promote your talk.
- Come early to talks. Sit down near someone who you don’t know and leverage this opportunity to make their acquaintance. This is a great opportunity to network, especially for introverts, because there is a reason to speak with them – you are both here to attend the session so you can introduce yourself and reference the speaker and his or her subject as a way to get the conversation started. Furthermore, this networking has an “expiration date”. As soon as the speaker begins, you can whisper, “It was great to meet you. May I have your business card?” and you are now done.
- Wear comfortable (dress) shoes. Leave the heels at home, as you’ll be walking miles and miles. Your professional attire at a conference should be more polished than what you wear in the field, lab or even in the day-to-day office,
- Follow social media before, during and even after. Many events, activities, and last minute changes to the scientific program of a conference are only promoted via the conference app or social media. So make sure that you find out what the social media sites are for the conference and the professional association in advance. And then get on Facebook and “like” the conference/ association’s page, and follow the society on twitter. Twitter is especially useful because you can tweet and follow tweets with the conference hashtag. You’ll learn vital real-time information about events as they unfold, including sessions that were late to be added or that are announcing exciting new data. You’ll also discover who are the trend-makers and other established leaders in the community and get a sense of potential collaborators. And by following those experts, you’ll have a reason to contact them. You may even get inspiration to take your own research novel directions. You can continue your engagement with these newfound colleagues by retweeting their tweets which additionally helps to establish and amplify your own brand.
- Even if you can’t attend, there is still networking value of which you can take advantage remotely. Review the program, see who is speaking or attending, notice what organizations and companies are exhibiting, follow the twitter feed and then reach out to the participants. Email them, let them know you won’t be at the meeting, but you are very interested in their work and that you’d like to explore the opportunity to partner. Ask for phone/Skype appointments following the conference.
- Follow up is of the utmost importance: If you just go to a conference and do nothing after it, you have (almost) completely wasted your time. The meeting itself is the starting point- to make contacts, begin to develop partnerships and to appropriate promote yourself and your work.
- Always bring a great attitude. A smile on your face as you approach someone or enter the room for a mixer can go a long way to laying the foundations for productive relationships. No one wants to chat with someone who isn’t happy to be there, or is looking at their shoes or reading a text while speaking with them. Show people that you are serious about your craft and about their craft by recognizing that this type of networking is a privilege, honor and is, in fact, enjoyable. Have fun – the more you do that, the more people will want to be around you. This doesn’t mean you have to be the life of the party or change your personality from being an introvert to an extrovert; rather, show up with the expectation that you will take pleasure from the experience of participating in the conference. That joy will be infectious and will help to fuel the conversations you will have.
Parts of this article are drawn from Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015).
Alaina G. Levine is Author of Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015) and President of Quantum Success Solutions, a career consulting and professional speaking enterprise dedicated to the career advancement of scientists, engineers, and non-nerds too. Contact her at www.alainalevine.com and follow her @AlainaGLevine.