Conference Networking 101
When considering whether to attend a professional development conference, most people look at who the speakers are and what the sessions will cover. But going to a conference isn't just about attending workshops and listening to speakers. The best part of attending a conference is the opportunity to meet other like-minded people and establish relationships that can help you grow professionally.
"Conferences are a fantastic way to meet new people to network with." says Ann Postlewaite, director of student leadership for the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals. "I make a point to talk to as many new people as I can—finding out ways in which our jobs are similar, talking about problems I am tackling, seeing if they might have had a similar situation, and how I might be able to share ideas with them."
Making connections with new people at conferences isn't difficult if you keep these tips from veteran conference-goers in mind.
Be approachable. "Wear your conference name tag where people can see it—not tucked under your jacket," says Staci Kalmbacher, director of the Office of Learning Services for the Melissa (Tex.) Independent School District. This is such a simple step, but wearing your name tag allows others to identify you as a conference attendee and provides a way to approach you.
"Have an interesting button on so that people will want to read it and make conversation with you," says Davita Solter, principal at Frontier Elementary School in Peoria, Arizona.
Introduce yourself. "Keep in mind there are others just like you, so the person you go up to introduce yourself to may be feeling a little shy, too, and will be grateful you introduced yourself," Solter says.
"I think the most important thing is to talk to everybody. This is not the place to be shy," says Donna Gleason, eighth grade English teacher at Silvestri Junior High in Las Vegas, Nevada. "Go up to people and start a conversation. Even if all you say is, 'Where are you from?' it will start a conversation, and you have made a connection with a new person. Everyone is attending for the same reasons, and you probably have a lot in common with just about every attendee there."
Bring business cards. "Have your business cards readily available and have a specific place to tuck those you receive so that they don't get lost in the shuffle," says Diane Anderson, student activities coordinator for Virginia Beach City Public Schools in Virginia. If your district doesn't provide business cards, search online for "free business cards" and use one of the many offers available.
"I make sure to take a ton of business cards with me with all of my contact information to share with these new networking pals," Postlewaite says. "There are many times I will e-mail or call, re-introduce myself, and ask a question or bounce a new idea when I am stuck in a rut."
It's also a good idea to note on the back of each card you receive something that will help you remember the person—something you talked about, something you want to follow up on, what session you were in when you met—otherwise you might end up with a stack of cards and only a vague idea of who each person is.
Look for opportunities for informal conversations. "When you go to a session, everyone in the room is already interested in the same thing you are interested in. Get to the session early, sit next to others, and immediately introduce yourself," Kalmbacher suggests.
"Go to workshops that are being taught by people you don't know, and go alone. This will force you to find someone to connect with at the workshop," Gleason says. "The conversations I have had with people before a workshop starts and after it ends are where I have gotten so many ideas for things I can do at my school."
Introduce yourself to presenters. "If you felt the session was good, introduce yourself to the speaker afterward and leave your card. Ask if there is a Web site he or she would recommend to follow up the presentation," Kalmbacher says. "E-mail speakers thanking them for their presentation and request additional resources. Maybe one of those resources will help make another connection."
Look for opportunities to connect outside sessions. "Talk to others in all areas of the conference—even in the elevator or rest rooms," says Sue Dowty, eighth grade language arts teacher at Conestoga Middle School in Beaverton, Oregon. "Some of the best conversations I have had at conferences started in the rest rooms or while waiting for elevators or riding buses to events."
Participate in social events. "If you're interested in a product or if your district uses a product, visit the vendor area, see if the vendor has an evening customer appreciation event planned, and attend it. These are very social, less structured occasions to get to know people," says Kalmbacher.
"Go to the happy hour, no-host bar, or other mixers to meet people. Even if you do not drink, go to these events so that you will meet others," Dowty recommends.
Thank people for their contributions. "Bring a package of thank you cards with envelopes. After hearing a presentation that you found helpful, take time to write the presenter a thank you note, enclose your business card, and either leave it at the front desk if you are all at the same hotel or hand it to the presenter at the end of the presentation," says Dowty.
Follow up. Once the conference ends, Dowty recommends doing three things on the way home or once you get home: "Write down the ideas you want to remember and file them in a spot you will remember; write e-mails to others you met and want to keep in contact with; and find out when the next conference is so you can attend."
Take a risk—be a presenter next time. "The first time I presented a workshop, I was so nervous! I had nightmares about it," Gleason says. "But, because I took the risk, I was able to meet other presenters that I normally would not have had any contact with. Go ahead and try something that you normally would not do. You never know who you'll meet."
Previously published in Middle Ground magazine, April 2009
Lyn Fiscus is a freelance writer in Reston, Virginia.