Ah, the professional conference. Love them or hate them, they are the key to networking and keeping current with your field. I know lots of academics who dread national and international conferences. I find them exhausting, but I don't mind them. I can see, however, if you are not extraverted (ahem, a lot of academics) or experienced in these types of things, conferences can be intimidating and the opposite of fun.
But, as I mentioned, professional conferences are essential in almost every field. They help you make vital connections on a national or international level. Conferences are also key to keeping current with your field or discipline, and allow you to show off your work and/or skills. If you want to get ahead, you need to learn how to rock a professional conference.
Having just returned from a major international conference in Chicago, I thought it was a good time to reflect on conference best practices and the secrets to making the most out of them. So here we go!
Dress the Part
I think the age-old advice, "dress for the job you want," is great. You obviously want to look professional and polished. But you also want to be mindful of dress code norms within your field. For instance, historians are not known for their fashion risks, so it is probably not the venue to try a bold new trend.
Research Before You Go
It is always helpful to do your research before attending a conference. Knowing who will be there and what will be presented and/or discussed will help you use your conference time wisely. Plus if the conference is highlighting a field or topic you are unfamiliar with, it will give you time to prep.
Bring Business Cards
This one still feels awkward for me as an academic. But once I finally printed some and started handing them out, I realized it made exchanging information easier and ensured important people could contact me if need be. Make sure you are also collecting cards. I like to make a note on the back after they walk away to remind me of who they were and what we discussed.
Show Interest and Curiosity in Others
You want to demonstrate interest and curiosity when having conversations in order to connect with people. But it is important you do not lie in an attempt to connect. This is especially true for academics. Don't pretend you know something or have experience with a topic/field when you don't. It is a recipe for a future disaster or embarrassment.
Network Outside Your Comfort Zone
Sure, it is easier to stick close to and interact with people you already know. But, this defeats the purpose of traveling across the country to connect with colleagues you would not normally get to interact/connect with. As hard as it is to introduce yourself or strike up a conversation with a stranger, it is the reason you are there.
Be Outgoing, But not Aggressive
While it is important to put yourself out there and introduce yourself to the right people, you don't want to come off as aggressive. Someone actually walked up to me at my last conference and without saying a word, grabbed my laniard, read my name and who I was, decided I was not worth their time, and without a word, walked away. You don't want people to feel like you are just using them. You never know who might be a major connection in the future!
Being genuine will help you connect with people and not come off as an aggressive networker. Forced conversation will always come off as forced!
Don't Drink Too Much
This one should be obvious, but you might be surprised. Alcohol can alleviate fears and help with networking anxiety, but it can also cause embarrassment or derail your career forever!
Have Your Elevator Pitch Ready
Be ready to introduce yourself and what you do with a clear and concise pitch. Make sure it is interesting/engaging and hopefully even lead to follow up questions/conversation.
Finally, make sure you follow up once you return home. All of those new connections will be worthless if you don't follow up and maintain them!
Do you have any tips for rocking a professional conference to share? Please do!
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