As someone who has founded a company with the word ‘event’ in it, I get invited to my share of tech and startup events as well as conferences. Over the years, I’ve learned to reject some of the invitations and accept only a few. That’s a topic for another day though.
In this post, I want to talk about how you can make the most of any gathering. I am not a fan of the verb ‘networking’ and prefer to think of it as ‘connecting’ but feel free to use any term that works for you. Several of us, including myself, think of ‘networking’ as a dirty word thanks to ineffective salespeople and mindless conversationalists. This guide is not for the average attendee. If you are a leader or aspire to be one some day this is for you. You already know how precious your time and mind space are. I wrote this guide to remind myself of the handful of tips and tricks that have worked for my over the years.
Since you’ve already clicked on the title and landed on the page, I don’t have to tell you about the benefits of attending meetings, parties, events, and gatherings. However, since I am a kind-hearted person I will do so anyway.
Attending events or conferences is a great way to broaden your perspective on topics you may deem familiar to you, while learning about topics you’d never imagined to appeal to you. It is also a great way to meet new people and add value to an ecosystem or two.
Below are seven of the most effective habits and tricks that have helped me make the most of my time at events. I hope this helps you up your game.
Do your homework
I’m appalled by the number of people I meet at conferences or events who haven’t conducted some basic research about the event. If you’re going to be spending time commuting to an event and meeting people there, please invest at least an hour on some background homework. Find out who the speakers or panelists are. Learn more about their companies or organisations and their past. Basically, check to see if you have mutual connections or friends. I know that this may seem like common sense to you, but it is surprisingly rare to meet people who have done their homework.
Befriend the organisers
Your homework and research must not be limited to the speakers and panelists. The real heroes of the event are the organisers themselves. These folks usually toil hard for several weeks and interact very closely with the speakers, panelists, and guests who make it to the event. I’ve often seen people rush towards the speakers after a panel or event reaches it end while completely ignoring the organiser or moderator who is usually standing right there. A trick that has worked for me is to walk up to a friendly-looking volunteer, introduce myself to her and ask her if there’s anyone from the panel or guest list she thinks I ought to meet. Works like a charm every time. Another key reason to befriend the volunteers – they’ll host an event again some day. Don’t you want a heads up and an invite?
Planning and executing any event is a Herculean task. Even the most veteran event organisers won’t deny that. The world-famous author and angel investor Tim Ferriss started off his career as a nobody. In his early 20s nobody knew his name and he knew very few people. Tim went on to build his now-limitless network by volunteering at the local TiE chapter. By volunteering for a non-profit organisation that invited the best investors and founders within his ecosystem, Tim befriended stalwarts he wouldn’t have been able to reach out to on his own. Similarly, my co-founders and I followed this approach when we started up a few years ago. The organisations of our choice were TiE and NASSCOM. If you’re serious about growing your network, discard any inkling of ego you may have and volunteer your services in exchange for entry and a chance to interact with the guests up, close, and personal. I’ve handled social media for events. We’ve served water and tea to the VIPs at an event. I’ve also offered to be the emcee/anchor at an event for free several times.
Find yourself a partner
I like to treat events and conferences like video games. However, I don’t like to play single-player games. Team up with a friend, co-founder, or new friend and split up or treat each other as wing(wo)men. If you’re shy, moving around in a group makes it easier to approach new people. However, if you aren’t the shy types, you can cover more ground and exchange notes. If you haven’t collected business cards, make sure you have a note-taking app open and make notes about the most interesting people you meet. Your brain is amazing at coming up with ideas. Unfortunately, it sucks at keeping those ideas there for a long time. Make notes and exchange them with your partner.
At most conferences and events, diversity (or lack thereof) is a huge issue. Like it or not, the likelihood of everyone else looking and sounding like you is very high. Learn to stand out via your behaviour and body language. Be confident, dress sharply, maintain eye contact, and speak clearly. Merely being the best version of yourself can help you stand out because most people tend to live life on a low-energy mode. You must be unapologetic about being excited to be at the event. Most importantly, be a keen listener. It’s crazy how many of us can get lost in conversations where we keep talking and selling ourselves. Engage in conversations where you are an active listener as well and people will love you for it.
Apart from the basic homework and research I mentioned previously, make sure you go prepared for other situations as well. For example, please carry enough business cards if you’re going to be meeting a lot of people. I know that this sounds pointless, but a future point will help you understand why. Also, if you’re planning on live-tweeting or posting pictures or videos on social media, carry a portable battery pack. Lastly, if the venue is not a hotel, resort, or office, carry enough water and maybe some snacks.
Remember those cards you collected and the notes you made? Time to put them to use. Sit down with the stack and shoot a simple email to the most interesting people you met. A simple and effective email contains three parts – a reminder of who you are and where you met (context), a value-add or offer to help/ request to stay in touch, and a call to action. Here’s a sample:
I’m so glad I got to meet you at the founders-who-look-like-Greek-Gods meet up last evening. My friend and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing you narrate the story of your event-planning startup.
I’d love to stay in touch and occasionally shoot you an email or two in case I need help with tech-related problems. Feel free to reach out to me in case you want to discuss any marketing or sales-related experiments.
P.S: I write a weekly email to a bunch of friends about habits, productivity, leadership, and more. It also contains links to articles, podcasts, books, and videos I enjoyed learning from. If you’d like to be on this exclusive list, let me know or sign up here.
Bonus tip – Add value
The key to maintaining your friendships is by constantly adding value in any way you can. We live in a pay-it-forward world where you can almost never repay those who help you in a direct manner. However, you can help retain karmic balance in the world by helping others out when they need your time, resources, or expertise.
In my quest to make the world a better place, I try to add value by sharing my weekly learnings with a bunch of friends who aspire to be a better version of themselves. Most of the people who read my weekly emails are those who love to lead from the front and upgrade their skill set every day in order to set a better example to those that surround them. If that sounds like you, sign up here and you’ll receive the next email I send out.