The truth behind this business principle will never die, because humans are innately social creatures. Many experts and executives attend conferences worldwide to network and build relationships, with pragmatic goals and aims in mind. However, you can’t look at networking like you would a KPI, because it’s about socialising and finding common topics of interest. You can’t force romance, and you can’t force friendships – naturally, the same applies to networking.
Take it easy! When networking in conferences, success and failure only goes as far as how you define it. It’s perfectly alright to attend a conference and talk to just one or two counterparts, if you manage to form connections with them. Networking is not a question of numbers – even if you speak to 200 people, you might still fail to make any distinct impressions or relationships. There’s no obligation to talk to every individual at the event: you simply need to focus on people whom you think will be interested in what you have to say, then gauge their responses.
Don’t be so caught up in the idea of networking that you come across as nosey and trying to force your way into talking with other people. Approaching networking with a mindset like that makes others feel like you’re so obviously here to network that you don’t really care about their involvement in the conversation – they can sense it, even if you’re unaware that you’re giving them this impression.
Networking is a situation where your reputation can be at stake, and you have to be genuine in speech and action. Telling the truth is extremely important, as people will realise if you’re trying to fake your way into or out of a situation. On an intuitive level, even if it doesn’t make logical sense to them, they will feel like there’s something off or unnatural about what you’re saying; consciously or otherwise, they will put up a wall and lose interest in further conversation with you.
With the formal nature of conferences and the high-powered corporate vibe of fellow suit-and-tie executives, it’s understandable why some people might find networking in such environments daunting. However, once you strip away all the status and positioning, they’re just other human beings meeting up. As such, a very underrated way to succeed when networking in conferences is simply to listen to people and what they are saying – after all, everyone loves to be heard. What are they talking about, and are their topics relevant to you? It’s great if there is a common topic that you can talk about, whether it’s in a one-on-one conversation or in a group setting.
You don’t have to prepare and over-prepare for these kinds of situations – talking is not a unique skill like playing the guitar or learning how to drive a car, it’s a very natural thing that comes to everyone, whether they’re introverts or extroverts. While talking and making connections come more easily to some people than others, the fundamental need and knowledge to do so is within all of us, as human beings and social creatures. In general, it’s also good to keep in mind the disparity between cultures, especially at international conferences. Remember to give the other person some space – some people may find the lack of space between you and them offensive. While there’s fundamentally nothing wrong with trying to get your point across to another person, it’s always beneficial to be aware of such cultural nuances.
You’re building a great, solid foundation for networking by simply turning up on time with appropriate dress and behaviour, having your presence of mind and not getting too drunk. It’s perfectly alright to stay silent if you’re not comfortable with talking yet – at any given conference, others won’t reveal it, but they’re experiencing the same thing. Being afraid of networking is nothing to be ashamed of – when I first attended such events, I felt the same way and remained quiet; from there I took small, progressive steps, like learning not to doubt my abilities and being comfortable with simply being there. It was very helpful for me to adopt the attitude and behaviour of being a visitor, an observer that no one will mind or take issue with.
Even if you’re just there to observe, that can constitute a very big agenda. In fact, when asked, you can simply say that you’re attending the conference for inspiration and meeting others in the same profession from around the world. Not only will people appreciate the honesty of your answer, many also hold the same outlook when flying for such events.
In my first networking experience, I didn’t do any reading on the topic and didn’t have anything to sell to anyone. I decided to simply observe how these conferences worked, how others behaved and hoped I could meet other like-minded people. You can set the stage for future actions this way – by the time you attend your second conference, you’re well-equipped with knowledge of the networking dynamics, how logistics are executed, when the lunch break is held and where are the places you should go. You can only gain this knowledge through experience; no one can teach you these aspects of networking.
Yes, others can give you guidelines, advise you on proper dressing and behaviour and even discuss inappropriate actions you should avoid. However, they can’t teach every detail of communicating with others and successfully networking – it boils down to experience you can’t skip.
Ultimately, success isn't guaranteed. But when it happens, it begins with going and putting yourself out there, dressing for the occasion, displaying confidence and making friends.
People come together over common interests, and as business people, talking over business interests would be the natural conclusion to reach, a win-win situation that can be easily fostered by seeking out others in the same industry. However, you should not limit yourself to networking with just this group of people, as the best opportunities are actually created when you actually have a personal relationship with the other party, even if the relationship has nothing to do with your business.
I would even say that all good business relationships are not formed solely with business in mind. For instance, while you are pitching your idea or product, hundreds of thousands of people worldwide are doing the same thing. It comes down to more than the strength of your product or idea – people judge you based on other aspects, and you can capitalise on this to differentiate yourself. Through establishing a deep relationship over similar opinions, the other party will trust what you have to say, with this belief founded on your common bond. When you then pitch something to the other party in the future, they might not understand it completely, but will still be willing to agree based off the trust you’ve built.
However, when you do talk about business to new people, especially in bigger conferences, you should get to the point and simplify your pitch down to one or two sentences. If you are travelling abroad to find new clients in a new market, it’s sufficient to begin with: I’m from X country and looking to expand overseas, here’s my business card.
Immediately after this you should continue with your value proposition, which you need to know deep in your heart before you can actually sell to anyone. You can’t sell anything if you lack confidence in what you’re selling. Intention followed by value, that’s the bare minimum you can reduce your pitch to. In this case, your value proposition might be: I can get the work done in the same quality standards for a much better price. Beyond that, you don’t need to overwhelm the other party with details – if they are interested and ask you more questions, then answer and dive into the specifics accordingly. If time is limited but the other person wishes to hear more about your pitch, don’t forget to exchange business cards and revive the conversation at a future opportunity.
Used correctly, silence is also an extremely attractive tool. It’s one of the pillars of seduction, and in business, when you really want to win over a client, you can’t show that you’re desperate by any means, or you’ll be forfeiting any leverage and confidence you have. The importance of appearances is not lost on them – even as you are trying to sell to them, they are also trying to sell different things to other people, for other reasons. To earn their respect, you need to pause and let the other party come to you.
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Former Chief of Staff, Design