An Introvert’s Guide to Conference Networking

Conferences are a great way to meet a ton of people with interests directly relevant to your own.

It can also be terribly overwhelming and scary.

Here are some tricks that have worked for me, a tried and true introvert:

  1. Find the person who knows everyone.  Some people actually enjoy meeting new people. They make contacts and new friends as easily as they breathe. Find this person, become their friend, and begin to make new connections just from being in their presence.  Mention on the side that you’ve always wanted to meet so-and-so and they will make it happen.  Don’t worry, you’ll only be riding their coattails for a little while and then you’ll be launched into your own web of networks.
  2. Don’t go to every workshop. This may be shocking advice.  You (or your PI) pay a lot of money for you to attend and learn all that you can from a conference.  But, that’s not the only reason you go.  You attend conferences to make connections to others in your field.  The talks that are directly relevant, of course, go to those, but if there’s some less than inspiring talks coming up, take this chance to sit outside the event and chat with whoever else was bored.  It’s hard to have conversations when you are speed-dating your way through conference workshops.
  3. Use social media.  I’ve posted on this before, about how Twitter saved an introvert like me.  Seriously, get a Twitter account, start following people in your field, use that to build a network.  I even listed my Twitter handle on my title slide and (gasp!) pointed it out!  Yes, I think my PI shook his head a little, and maybe not in amusement (but then started following me).  If you’re not already, get on Linked In. I’m not totally convinced of its usefulness (why exactly did my Nana endorse my virology skills?), but if for nothing else, its a way to share your contact information with others.  Use facebook at your own risk, just edit the pictures from undergrad.
  4. Brand cloudBuild your brand before the conference. This goes along with the previous piece of advice.  You are a brand.  At every point in your career, when you are ready to make the next step, you need to sell yourself.  You need to convince others that you are the best person on the planet for your dream job and they would be remiss to pass you up.  Create a following.  Give something back to your field: publications, workshops, presentations, collaborations, tweets, blogposts, etc.  I actually had someone say that they were looking forward to meeting me at my last conference!  Little ole me?!?!  Branding.
  5. Become an event.  Present at your next meeting.  To introverts like me, it is terrifying, but so rewarding.  Build excitement around your talk.  Don’t be afraid to recruit your tweeps to your talk and anyone else using the conference hashtag.  By putting yourself out there, you become more available to someone who wants to ask you a question or meet you.
  6. businesscardsGo old school and give out business cards.  It may seem archaic, but, trust me, it works.  If your PI/institution won’t pay for them, it is so easy to get/make business cards these days.  Go on Vistaprint and plug in your information.  Use Microsoft Publisher template and print your own on card stock.  And, most importantly, give them out!  Unlike trading cards, the more you give out your business card, the more valuable they are!  Have you enjoyed talking with someone?  Give them a card.  Liked someone’s presentation but were too nervous to ask a question at the end? Give them a card.  Presenting a poster?  Have cards ready to hand out to any person who actually reads the full title.  Make the business card less dated by including your twitter handle, your linkedin connection, and any other form of social media you deem suitable in addition to the regular stuff.
  7. Don’t be afraid to approach the headline speaker.  Most people are completely honored and humbled to be asked to give a headline talk at a conference.  All of those people were once in your shoes, looking up and thinking, “Wow, what an amazing person/story/project, etc.”  If something in their talk struck you, don’t be afraid to walk right up to them and say so, politely of course.  One of the headline speakers at my last conference was speaking during the career development workshop.  She shared something personal in her talk that, being a mom, really got to me.  Somehow, I had no fear approaching her later and thanking her for being so candid.  We ended up having great conversation about the balance of parenting and career.
  8. Follow up. The networking doesn’t stop at the end of the conference.  Give it a couple weeks to let everyone get caught up on the work, chores, and sleep that were neglected while away.  But, reconnect with the people you found truly interesting, that you would like to collaborate with, that you would like more information about their system, etc. Send an email, include them in a tweet, remind them that you were awesome and they should stay in touch with you!

Become a social (media) butterfly

networkcolorWe hear it all the time: network, network, network. Meeting people and making connections is essential in today’s workplace.

However, not everyone is great at meeting new people. I am quite shy. When people question this trait of mine I tell them about my first day in 6th grade at a new school. Instead of talking to other kids and starting to make new friends, I found the only desk with no one around it, put my head down and cried.

Fast forward, almost 25 years, I am still terrible at making new friends. I’ve learned some strategies and coping mechanisms to overcome this in the workplace. However, at big meetings, the perfect opportunity to connect with a lot of people, I turn right back into that shy little girl from a quarter century ago.

 

Using Social Media to Build Your Network

Much like in a bar, that first sentence, that “pick up line”, can be so incredibly awkward.

“Hi! I’m so-and-so. Umm….”

I’ve found I need an “in”, a reason for approaching a person, other than for the sake of meeting them. At large conferences, this can often be achieved after seeing someone’s presentation.

“Hey! Great talk! I was interested in that slide where…”

But that doesn’t work all the time, and can sometimes still seem awkward. Here is the best pick-up line I’ve heard:

“Hi, I follow you on Twitter…”

That’s it. So easy. Of course, you need to actually be following them on Twitter for which you’ll need a Twitter account.

sciencebirdHere’s my personal story of how easy this is.

I recently attended the American Society for Virology annual meeting at Penn State. Approximately 1000 grad-student, post docs, and PIs attend this meeting each year. Many attendees have been going every year for decades. I had attended twice before, the sole representative from my lab, and didn’t have much success meeting people. Returning this year as a post doc in a new lab and field, I was determined to improve on my skills.

I had also recently signed up for twitter and was building my base of relevant researchers to follow. The science twitterverse is a bit smaller than others. Medical professionals have 100x as many twitterers. Check out #FOAMEd to see how powerful twitter can be: case reports, medical pearls, etc. It is more difficult sharing cutting edge science since we are all competing for the same money, but there is still much to be shared and gained from your fellow virologists, especially when it comes to networking.

As I walked through the first social event at ASV this year, I recognized one face after another, people that I followed on twitter. My nerves getting the best of me, I hesitated and gave up an opportunity to meet someone I practically new already. Finally, I gathered up my nerves and walked right up to a “big fish”, 5000+ followers, blogger, podcaster, and PI. It wasn’t awkward or weird. It was very natural. I started with, “I follow you on twitter and really enjoy the blogs and podcast”, and the conversation continued from there.

After that, it was really easy to approach people, especially when I already knew them from their twitter feed. The best experience was when someone approached me and said, “I’ve been dying to meet you, I’ve been following you on twitter!” Me?? I couldn’t believe it! But it proved the point that using social media can enhance your networking skills.