If only you’d known how to network at a conference the last time you were at a conference to network. You did OK. You used the “rule of three” and the FORD method and your talk was really, really small. You made a handful of connections and followed up when you got back to your desk. (You read every word of my “Secret Science of Mingling.“)
But you’ve been thinking about how maybe you could’ve done more. Like your arch-nemesis, Blaine. Blaine killed it. She had half the conference in the palm of her hand. They laughed and they clapped and they high-fived like it was spring break. And she walked into the next morning’s meeting with four qualified leads. How did she do it?
Short Answer? She Tried
There’s about a 9,000% chance Blaine did her homework before she hit the conference floor. She stalked lead network targets on Facebook. She drilled down through the syllabus. She visited the websites of attending firms and read the bios of all the senior people. Hell, she knew the names of their dogs.
But there’s more to Blaine’s success than lead research. Blaine has a secret: She’s terrified. You can’t see it when she’s telling a story and has the entire department hanging on every word. But behind her mask of confidence, her inner self is paralyzed by social anxiety. She wasn’t always good at conference networking. But she’s always been a very, very fast learner. Blaine learned the secret science of mingling and has been tweaking her game ever since. So can you.
Teach Yourself These Five Advanced, Effective Networking Skills
The following ideas have been perfected by countless top-shelf minglers in every industry. Adopt these skills and put them to the test the next time you’re at a conference and need to network for leads. They will teach you:
How to open a conversation.
How to get your quarry to talk.
How to go off script.
How to mimic people to make them comfortable.
How to tell a joke.
Check it out.
1. How to Break the Ice When You Network
Don’t. Oh, my God, don’t think of it like that. Just introduce yourself. It’s so simple. Just say, “Hi, I’m Jehoshaph at Jones–Boston, Bostin, and Baah-Sten.” The conversation will naturally follow. People like regularity and patterns because they make us comfortable, so we tend to follow conventions when we talk to one another. That’s why when someone runs into you and says, “Hi, how are you?” they don’t actually want to know how you are. They’re signaling. It means “I recognize you and want you to feel comfortable. I also want to feel the warm embrace of the familiar, so I’ve used code. Please don’t actually tell me about your recent gout attack.”
However, you have to start the conversation somehow or you’ll both just stand near each other awkwardly until the awkward pressure builds to nuclear levels. These proven techniques will get the ball rolling.
2. Let Them Do the Work When You Network
Ask open-ended questions. This is mandatory. Let’s look at two scenarios for your opening salvo:
Canned question: “You here for the conference?” Now they dislike you. You’re both already at the conference and you just asked them if they’re here for the conference, which indicates to them that you recently fell down and went boom, preventing you from communicating normally. Or, this is the best you can do and if that’s true, they don’t want to hire you. Conversation over.
Open-ended question: “What brings you to this conference?” This is good. They can’t just say “Yes.” They have to tell a story. It might not be much; they might just say “I’m prospecting.” However, they might go full tackle by saying: “I’m looking for a tech-focused firm that can act as outside counsel for a startup I represent.” Which is great because your firm is staffed by robots.
On the flip side of this scenario, someone asks, “You here for the conference?”
Canned response: “Yes.”
Creative response: “No, I’m here for the interpretive dance.”
Better creative response with less obnoxiousness: “Yes, our firm represents technology companies and we’re looking for clients. What brings you to this wingding?”
This is fantastic. You’ve ignored their terrible opening question with aplomb, knowing they’re probably just nervous, then you tossed the question back to them with an open end, so they have to tell their story. Professional, generous, could lead to work.
The other flip side of this scenario, someone asks, “What brings you to the conference.”
Knee jerk response: “Yes.”
Jerk-jerk response: “I’m here for the buffet.”
Best response: See above.
3. How to Be Real When You Network
I know you’re there to get new business, but so is everyone else. By the time you hand someone your card, they’ve had a thorough education in elevator speeches. Sure, everyone should have a solid one — nutshelling your unique value proposition is vital because nobody has time for a soliloquy at a conference. But imagine being a prospect at this business networking conference. Imagine hearing your umpteenth elevator speech and wishing someone would go off-script. Improvise.
Prospects want someone who stands out — even if it’s just enough to show that you’re real.
But what does it mean to be real? You know that one frat-bro guy from acquisitions who barks wildly, just an inch away from mandatory-HR-meeting insanity, and then follows it with, “Just keeping it real”? That’s not it.
We’re talking about allowing your experience and expertise to take the lead. You know your job. So leave the talking points in a folder on the desk in your hotel room. It’s like giving a presentation without slides. Not the TED talk kind — those people rehearse. Don’t rehearse. Just be yourself.
Before you click out of this article for turning to a lame meme, hear me out!
Like I said, your prospect has been assaulted by canned responses that have been tweaked and rehearsed in the hotel room mirror until they’re perfect. By now, their response has become just as canned and meaningless as those pitchy hellos. Look, it’s easy.
Stick out your hand and introduce yourself, then see where the moment takes you. Your prospect will be so relieved that you’re not pitching them, they won’t realize you’re pitching them. At some point in the conversation, they will relax and ask about your work and you can just talk about what you do. No bullet points. No subheads. Just talking.
4. If “Being Yourself” Doesn’t Work, Be Someone Else
This is advanced mingle theory, so read slowly and take notes because this part is weird.
Every once in a while, I have a moment of panic when I’ve taken on a challenging job and it’s getting hairy and I think I couldn’t conjugate a verb out of a wet paper sack and I think maybe I can drive a Lyft for a while. To help fight the panic, I have a little poster on my desk that reads Donec Simulare. That’s terrible Latin for “Fake it till you make it.” I am in no way suggesting you fake your credentials! But, sometimes, when your courage wanes you might benefit from a teensy-weensy bit of theater.
Assume the character traits of a confident, schmoozy, name-dropping rainmaker. I know it sounds crazy. I’m not telling you to change your voice or wear a fake mustache; I’m suggesting you adopt the traits you want to acquire but do not currently possess. There are several versions of this trick, but these two are easy and effective. The first trick, which comes from social psychologist Amy Cuddy’s wildly popular TED talk, might start in your hotel room before you descend into the Pit of Necessary Small Talk. The other one happens while you’re walking around.
Pose for power. You have to do this in private because you will look stupid doing it in the lobby or parking lot. But trust me, this works: Assume a heroic stance. Plant your feet just a smidge wider than your shoulders, put your fists on your hips, and look heroically off into the distance. Imagine a cape flapping in the breeze. A letter on your chest. Stay that way for two minutes. You’ll carry that freaky frisson of fearlessness with you into the main hall. (Some recent science has called Dr. Cuddy’s findings on power posing into question, but I don’t care. I’ve done this and it works.)
Time travel. As you walk around the conference, as you attend the breakouts and the workshops, pretend to be future you — the you with your name on the front door. The you with a stack of Fortune 100 clients. The you who floats seamlessly from introductions to lifelong clients. If it sounds like BS, I urge you to try it out. The truth is our minds are both extravagantly complex and pathetically gullible. If you tell your mind you are a rainmaker on the inside, your mind will make unconscious choices in an effort to make you act like one on the outside. The people you’re talking to won’t know you’re doing this; they’ll be thinking you should be on the cover of Forbes.
5. How to Tell a Joke at a Network Conference
The hard part is not so much how to tell a joke as when to tell a joke. Humor is about timing. That means while you’re telling the joke, you have to pay attention to its rhythm. But it also means you have to know when to lob that ball onto the court. You already know to shut up while the boss is talking. But do you know when to unload that killer joke you pulled off Reddit?
Why are you telling a joke anyway? That’s important. If you’re hoarding jokes to break the ice, then the time to tell those jokes is when you meet someone. But, when? It depends on the joke. And the person. And you. And how the stars are aligned and if Venus is cresting in the house of Ludacris. And a million other things that are impossible to explain. You have to develop a feeling for this, which you don’t have time for because you’re reading this article in the Uber to the convention hall, so here’s a tip: Wait until everyone is quiet. Wait until it’s awkward.
But … What’s Funny?
I don’t know, llamas? Obviously, race, sex, gender, age, ethnicity, body type, hair color, personal style and politics are off the table when you network. Which leaves precious little — even if you’re Dave Chappell. You’re not Dave Chappell. And you’re not going to tell any jokes that fall into those categories. So what is funny? Stupid situations. Wordplay. Puns. These are generally safe at a conference. But even in the safe zone, you have to think about your audience. Some people hate puns. Some people think clever wordplay is dumb. Some people have no sense of humor whatsoever.
Comedians call it crowd-work. Ever see a stand-up comic working the front row? She’s sizing up the audience, seeing what works, mapping the danger zones. It’s an inexact science, but you can do the same thing by simply listening to how someone reacts to what you say, to get a bead on what they’re thinking about, to see if they can take a joke.
Develop a Network Joke Repertoire
Do some research and have some jokes that work before a speech, jokes that work in awkward silence, and jokes to tell at the bar later. Play to your strengths. Here are three jokes I stole from the r/funny feed on Reddit:
I needed to go to the optometrist yesterday. Guess who I bumped into? Everyone.
A bartender says, “We don’t serve your kind in here!” A time traveler walks into a bar.
As I suspected, someone is adding soil to my garden. The plot thickens.
If you already tell awful dad jokes to your kids, then find the very worst dad jokes to bring with you to the seminar. Like these:
When does a joke become a dad joke? When it becomes apparent.
When it comes to what I like most about dad jokes, I will say this: This.
Never trust an atom. They make up everything.
If you’re a good storyteller, then you’re in luck. Funny stories are comedy gold — and memorable. People remember stories. We’re wired like that. If you tell a good story at a conference, people won’t just remember your story, they’ll remember you.
That’s network conference gold.