Here is a quick TLDR. If you like it and want more details, read on! Added some resources at the bottom, including how to choose what events are worth going to.
Remember: YOU determine what you get out of the conference. There will be good and bad events, but it is YOUR job to make the most out of every opportunity and put yourself in a position to be lucky.
- It’s NOT about the talks and panels. It’s about who you meet. Talks and info are all available online. If you’re at a conference, stick your hand out and say hi to the person next to you.
- Conference winners do research and set goals. I sometimes like to volunteer for events just so I know the guest list, the VIPs, popular/secret locations, and more. You don’t need to volunteer, but know the layout and know who you want to meet.
- Talk to the Moderators. People flood the speakers with questions so the speakers almost never remember you. It’s hard to make a good impression. The moderators, however, know just about everybody….and nobody floods them…
- Aisle seats and up front ALWAYS. If you want to ask a question (and you should), aisle seats allow you to get out faster to go to a mic AND make it easier for people to pass you a mic (depending on the mic set ups). Oh, and bring a notebook. It makes you look smarter.
- If you have a booth, BE AGGRESSIVE. People may not come to your booth. That doesn’t mean sit around. It means go out and talk to people.
It’s about who you meet.
If you want to learn cutting edge info or just hear famous people talk about startups, listen to podcasts and watch YouTube videos. If you’re into startups, I’d recommend Tim Ferriss’s podcast, This Week in Startups with Jason, and Stanfords ETL ecorner series. The content will probably better than what you see on stage. Most events even put the talks online after the event anyways.
What’s special about events however, are the people. Smart and ambitious people show up to conferences as attendees and speakers. Some may even fly out.
Let’s just use the LAUNCH Festival as an example. With several thousand attendees, somewhere in the room is a developer who is among the top developers in the nation. Somewhere in the room is somebody with the social reach to make my company, Commaful, blow up on social media. There also potential investors, clients, and more.
Now if I just wait around and listen to talks (or if I’m passive and don’t force myself to say hello to people), then I may NEVER meet any of those people.
Your job as a conference employee is to absorb as much luck as possible. The luck exists in the conference and somebody people are going to get it. You want to as much luck as possible.
Do your homework and set goals
I never go to conferences anymore just to “network.” It’s totally fine to do that, but I find it more effective to go in with specific goals in mind. If you need to meet sales people to sell your product to, figure out what sales companies will likely be there and what rooms they’ll be at. Tweet or send emails beforehand so you can set up meetings and make sure you meet them.
One week in advance, plan as much as you can. I usually start by talking to past event attendees (you can find them by searching for the event on twitter or facebook). I’ll ask people how crowded the event is and questions about the venue. That way I an plan accordingly. More crowded events means that it’s harder to meet to specific people you want to meet.
If need be, 1–2 weeks in advance is when you’ll want to do cold emails to people you want to meet and worry you may not run into.
Talk to the Moderators
This one is fairly simple. If you’ve ever been to a conference, you know the speakers immediately become celebrities after they speak. They will get swarmed by a line of people. The moderators usually get very little love and they tend to be very accomplished and even more well connected. They can usually point you in the right direction of people you should meet as well. You’re much more likely to make a good impression on the moderator than a big name speaker.
Aisle Seats and Up Front
Again a fairly simple one. An aisle seat lets you get up quickly. So say the talk is over and you want to talk to a speaker. Boom, you’ll be the first one up to talk to them because you’re near the front and at an aisle seat. When question and answer time comes, there are usually 3 types of set ups.
- Microphone stands where the audience walks up to the mic to ask a question.
- Microphones being passed around by organizers
- No microphones
In all 3 situations, you win. If you need to walk to a mic, you’re at an aisle, making it really easy. If the mic is being passed around, they always pass it a place where it’s easy to hand the mic off, hence the aisle. If there are no microphones, you’re up front so it’ll be easy to converse with the speaker.
If you have a booth BE AGGRESSIVE
I can’t tell you how often I see a booth with 2 people sitting behind it talking amongst each other, not even trying. Sometimes they’ll complain that they didn’t get the best booth location at the event.
Don’t complain about it, DO something about it. There are a few things you can do if people aren’t coming to your booth:
- have 1 person leave the booth and start talking to people or bring them back to the booth
- stand in front of your booth and say hello if you make eye contact with somebody. Usually, they’ll come by and give you some time
- hand out business cards, brochures, or flyers to people and talk to the people who are willing to take it
Find a way to STAND OUT
If you want to meet the speakers, you need to find a way that helps you stand out. As a poetry lover, I would occasionally write poetry to the speakers and share them on Twitter. Sure enough, if I met the speaker afterwards, they’d remember “Oh! You’re the guy who made the poem!”
Make sure you’re at the RIGHT conferences
Make sure you do your research ahead of time about what conferences will be worth it. Look for other companies that will be there or the community you’re targeting. For us, if Quotev or fanfic communities are there, we’re probably in the right place.
Don’t be afraid to leave the conference if you don’t feel like you’re getting real value.
One of the best resources on networking and conferences is Keith Ferrazzi’s Never Eat Alone. Here‘s a quick summary on that.