Kelly Gibbons, an Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO) member in Colorado, is founder and managing partner of Main & Rose, a strategic branding firm working with the world’s leading Fortune 500 companies, governments, executives and non-profits that offers brand architecture, design and strategic brand advising. We asked Kelly to share her insights on how to maximize networking opportunities during industry conferences. Here's what she said:
One of the best aspects of entrepreneurship is the opportunity to travel the world, attend and speak at some of the most exciting and high-powered conferences: TED, World Economic Forum, Milken Institute and SXSW.
As a branding expert, I encourage clients to attend these sought-after conferences so that they can continue to share their expertise while elevating their personal and corporate brands. However, I’ve noticed that even my most accomplished clients often struggle with taking advantage of the incredible line-ups at these events to make real, lasting business connections.
Networking can be intimidating and exhausting if not done the right way. Kelly Stoetzel, Head of Conferences at TED and a true visionary, speaks from experience: "People come for the speakers, but often their most powerful takeaways are the high-quality connections they make with others. During breaks, when people discuss ideas they’ve just heard instead of engaging in basic ’networking’ conversation, a sense of community and deeper connection emerges. This leads to relationships that last far beyond the conference.”
After years of traveling the conference circuit and speaking with leaders in the space, including Stoetzel, here are the six “dos and don’ts” of conference networking that I share with my top clients.
- DO: Make your list. Conference speakers are almost always posted online, sometimes several months before the event. With some clever internet research, you might even find the full list of attendees, too. Determine who you want to connect with before you catch your flight: It’ll keep you focused and accountable once you’re on the ground. Make a pledge to track down everyone on your list―and stick to it.
- DO: Prioritize quality over quantity. Networking is not a contest to see how many business cards you can stick in your Rolodex. Before sprinting from event to event, make time to be strategic, and think about what you want to gain from these interactions: new clients, new partners, new business ideas or just stepping out for a minute to learn more about yourself and the world. Be strategic about how you use your time: While the one-on-one format can prompt a more in-depth conversation, it means sacrificing time at larger group meet-ups where you could potentially connect with more people. It’s all about opportunity cost.
- DO: Your homework. To get as much from your networking interactions as possible, come prepared. Skip boring old ice-breakers, and think of conversation topics for networking events or meet-ups that are specific to your audience. Are you meeting with someone who recently wrote a book or went on TV? Gave a talk you attended? If so, talk about it! In my years in the branding space, I’ve seen again and again how people crave personal, human connections―and one of the most natural places to start is by showing interest in the people you’re meeting. Also, the reality is that for the 21st-century entrepreneur, life is busy, and too often, we only have the luxury to invest time in people who have shown the effort.
- DO: Plan your moves. Once you decide who you want to talk to, figure out where and how. Check the schedule for networking events, and keep your ears open for mentions of informal happy hours and events that might facilitate more intimate and personal conversations. Use social media to mine for unofficial events (Instagram location tags can be a goldmine). I also make it a point to stay in the main conference hotel and try to leverage every potential social activity as an opportunity: using the gym, eating breakfast, stopping by the coffee bar. You never know who you’ll meet.
- DO: Play it cool. It may be common sense, but in the chaotic environment of a conference, it’s worth remembering that it never pays to be too pushy. I’ve found that it’s absolutely fine to shoot someone an email before a conference to float the idea of a meeting, but I try to limit that to people with whom I already have a connection. And I never propose specific dates and times: It’s critical to give people cover to say no gracefully. As for follow-up emails, my maximum is one―and only if that meeting is essential. Otherwise, be respectful of others’ time and privacy. Remember, networking is like courtship: Don’t be too desperate.
- DON’T: Get discouraged. We’ve all gotten busy and forgotten to respond to email requests for meetings. If there’s someone you really want to connect with, it’s okay to send an email after the fact and suggest a quick coffee for when you’re next in the same place. Conferences are a 72-hour whirlwind: Go into them with the understanding that you won’t be able to do it all.