I've been to very few industry events, not too many. Although I like to meet people and learn from their experience, I've always felt it's hard to start a conversation with strangers ... and just spending the coffee breaks drinking 3 coffees and getting all possible cookies, cakes, and "tapas" into my belly is not enough to justify the time or costs of attending.
Then I got invited to an event in Sydney.
Although I'm from Austria, I live and work in Madrid (Spain). So, travelling to Sydney was quite a big deal for me – this time I needed to at least be able to connect with a few people and exchange ideas to make this worthwhile, otherwise it didn't make sense to go.
I had great conversations with more than 20 different people
Following this "plan of attack", this time I got to establish very strong connections to at least 20 people of the industry, and probably got to talk to 10 or 20 more, exchanging ideas and building rapport.
And they were really high level industry leaders – from bestseller authors, to millionaries, and people who had been on Opera.
Here's what I think will be my SOP (standard operating procedure) for all future events (and it might work exactly in the same way for you):
1. Start your conversations months ahead
As soon as I reserved my flight (which with current fees is like a confirmation you're really going) I started to connect with people on facebook who I knew would be there.
This not only gave me the chance to get on a few Zoom calls and even talk to them before the event about what they an I were working in, but also changed the environment from minute 1 of the event: I already – kind of – knew a few people, and they knew me.
Imagine stepping into a room with 150 people you have never seen and who don't know you – and now, picture entering the same room but being greeted by 2 people there (who might immediately tell their friends your name and what you do), and recognizing 4-5 other people because you are already "Facebook friends" with them. You'll be more relaxed and it will be easier for you to get great conversations started.
An important piece of the puzzle is connecting with the host of the event. It might be a group of people or a single person, but make sure they know who you are and what you do.
Why connect with the host?
Because they are asked for recommendations all the time, and they usually quickly introduce you to others right at the venue which are standing around, so they can leave again and care about the event.
3. Connect with the speakers
Nowadays, for every conference there is usually a list of speakers published on the events' website. The good thing is, that those lists usually contain links to their social media profiles.
This helps you to find them on their prefered social channels: you'll be able to chase them on YouTube or twitter, and maybe reference them on some of your blogs, or post one of their instagram pics as a story on your profile. Whatever gets your name into their face is going to work.
This is going to give you a great ice breaker when approaching them – ideally with some praise + a question about their speech.
4. Find others who are having the exact same problem
Next time when you're standing in a corner during the coffee break staring at your phone so you don't feel too embarrassed, put your phone back into your pocket and look around the room:
Chances are that, across the hallway, in the other corner (or sometimes even very close to your place) there's another person, looking around for possible conversation partners (or also staring at their phone).
5. Do you know what's funny?
Nobody goes to a conference to NOT talk to people. So approaching like-minded people who are just as shy as you are, is a win-win situation and gives your future relation a great start!
6. The day after the event
After having such an amazing event, I had a real desire to continue those conversations or at least continue working on those connections, so I approached the people I had the best conversations with on social media, and reached out to them in different ways:
I'm very proud of this one ... in order to maximize your leverage, think about the event: were there any people that caught your attention, but you didn't get to speak with them?
Add them on facebook or linkedin, with a personal message similar to: Noticed you at the event X yesterday, but unfortunately we didn't get to talk. Just wanted to .... (a) congratulate you on your speech (b) ask if you would be open to share your impressions about the event (c) share your point of view about XYZ
So, here's the action items you want to note down:
If "Hi, I'm Gert" worked for me, it will work for you!
The last step is to refresh connections once in a while – by sending them referrals, asking them for an opinion, or just saying "hi" on the messenger app if you get reminded by some experience or event in your day to day life. You might be running into them gain at the next event!