The Basics: Networking at Conferences

by Anna Blanch on May 31, 2010

Like any professional occupation Academics are often advised to network in order to increase career opportunities. However Networking is also crucial for setting up collaborations and for developing professional relationships with others in your field. This goes for academics and scholars at any stage of their careers. Like teaching, networking is very much dependent on your personality and social ease.

It seems to be a given that it’s important, but how do you go about it? and how exactly is networking different from socialising? This post focuses on the likely scenario of a room full of people, such as during a break, predinner drinks, or a cocktail party at a conference. Here are some basic tips:

Preparation: Find out who else is going to be there.
Take some time to read brief bios of the keynote and other main speakers. One professor I worked for while I was an undergraduate had me pull bios of all the other speakers for every conference they were presenting papers at, so they were prepared to talk to that person. This is common in the corporate world . If you know someone you would like to meet will be present, ask someone who is likely to know them to introduce you or find them and introduce yourself. If you have business cards, take them with you. If you are a grad student in a university that doesn’t or won’t provide them (some will do so for a fee) there’s always Vistaprint which is a good and inexpensive source for professional looking calling and business cards.

Arrange to travel with friends and colleagues but be honest about wanting to talk to people especially if there a particular person or two you’d like to meet. By all means support and encourage each other during flagging moments (or in situations when one feels like they need to be saved) but do make sure you actually do talk to other people. While I really enjoy being at conferences with my colleagues and it is much more relaxing eating meals and debriefing over coffee and biscuits with them I have to remind myself that this is also work and It’s important for me to learn and listen and get to know the other speakers and participants at the conferences I attend.

Arrive earlier rather than later.
While there is a practical reason for trying to be in the room when it is less crowded, this may be especially helpful for those who need an extra shot of bravery.

Offer to Help 
In addition to providing you with an opportunity to get to know the organisers of the event on a better level, offers of help will most likely be appreciated. Having a specific task or acting as a host in making people feel welcome will give you a great reason to start talking to people. This is especially good if you find social situations nerve-wracking or you feel like you need a confidence boost.

Be helpful to people
Think about how you can be of use to people: your knowledge, or are you able to introduce people to each other? Do you know the area well? Try to remember names and use them to introduce the person you just met to a new person – try to link the name to the university, it’ll help later!

Try to speak to people on their own and draw people into the conversation – this is the opportunity to introduce the other people you’ve just met to them. People who are on their own are likely to be relieved to be drawn into a conversation.

Prepare talking points
There is no harm in thinking of something to open a conversation with. Maybe talk about a project where you want input or explore what you both want out of the event you are attending. It doesn’t matter if you use the same topic several times, as long as you allow the conversation to take its natural course. Don’t bore people or dominate the conversation! — This is especially helpful if you find meeting new people a challenge.

Find an area of mutual interest
Whoever you talk to, you will inevitably have some things in common as you are attending the same event. Ask open-ended questions, listen, and explore where your interests overlap.This is a conversation, not a monologue so practice those active listening skills you once learned, who knows….you might learn a thing or two.

Move around
Do a little reading on polite ways to exit out of conversations if this is a standing event longer than 30 minutes. Some people prefer to talk to a couple of people in depth and others prefer to move around, both are useful and you should do what feels most natural to you – some people find it hard enough just talking to one new person they haven’t met. If you do want to move on, make a polite excuse (ie: restroom, getting another drink or food) or state sinmply honestly that there is someone else you would like to talk to.

Enjoy yourself
Be yourself, smile and enjoy yourself. Be honest about your interests and be genuine in your interest in others and your areas of knowledge/lack of knowledge. Noone liked the know-it-all in second grade, this hasn’t changed. Relax and know that your worth as will not increase or decrease because of who you meet or get to know. If there is alcohol don’t enjoy so much that you drink more than one glass an hour. You want to be on your game!

Follow up
This can make the difference between idle chit chat and building momentum. Write an email, especially if you have promised to send or forward anything. Thank people who have been helpful. Follow up contact may be easier if you exchange business cards but if you can keep a small pad and a pen on you (men – in a jacket pocket, women – in a small clutch purse or jacket pocket). Put a task in your calendar or an appointment, or even write the draft email as soon as you can so that it’s ready to go once you get home from the conference.

This post is part of the The Basics series which deals with general advice research and scholarship.

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image: Microsoft clip art


Anna Blanch is founder of Goannatree, and a PhD student in the Institute of Theology, Imagination, and the Arts at St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews. She is all for encouraging the elimination of the phenomenon of  the academic without social skills.

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