How to network at a conference

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How to network at a conference

Welcome to Stick to the Script, a regular feature where we get experts to tell you what to say in sticky money situations.

Conferences can offer great opportunities to learn about your industry, hear from major players and, of course, meet new people.

But you can’t just show up and wait for the magic to happen. Networking at a conference requires some homework.

Most conferences will share a list of speakers ahead of time, so you have plenty of time to prepare, said Dorie Clark, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and author of Stand Out Networking.

“You can review this to identify who you'd like to meet, and email or message them in advance to suggest connecting, or make a point of attending sessions where you know they'll be presenting,” she said.

Once you’re at the conference, how do you make your approach to start a conversation?

Forming a personal connection

A personal connection, either an introduction from a friend or a shared interest, is a great way to make an introduction, said Clark. You can introduce yourself and say:

"X suggested we connect."

“Obviously, this needs to be true,” Clark said. “But if you can get a warm introduction or referral, that's the best situation because there's built-in trust thanks to your mutual connection.”

Another tactic that works well in person? Open the conversation with a shared interest. You can say:

"I'm a [insert shared characteristic], too!"

The sooner you find a commonality with the person you just met, the better, said Clark.

“Whether it's living in the same neighborhood, being an alumni of the same school, or owning a particular type of dog,” she said. “That shows your new acquaintance that you're like them and are likely to have similar interests and values.”

Don’t be afraid to open with a question. An example could be:

"What's the coolest thing you're working on right now?"

“This question allows the other person to enter their sweet spot, talking about something they're genuinely excited about,” said Clark. “It makes for a better conversation.”

The next time you’re headed to a conference (or any other networking event), remember Clark’s advice and do your homework. Identify who you’d like to meet, as it can be overwhelming to figure out your game plan on the go — not to mention there may be thousands of other attendees.

Want more networking advice? Here’s how to ask someone for an informational interview, a great tactic to form new connections.

Image: Nastia Kobzarenko