Making the Most of Conference Season
You made it through holiday party season with all of the fundraisers, calorie-packed hors d’oeuvres, and open bars. Now we are in the midst of conference season and the thicket of networking receptions, meet and greets, and lunch and learns. Events are a staple of the advocacy industry where PAC, grassroots, direct lobbying, communications, media, and government collide to collaborate informally on the process of creating public policy and to make connections in order to facilitate this process in a smoother way. Conferences or large-scale events can be cumbersome to put on, costly to attend, and difficult to navigate for first-time attendees.
Having a one-on-one meeting, is still the gold standard of getting something done in Washington in spite of the proliferation of conferences, forums, email marketing, social media, and the content combustion online and offline. However, most circumstances do not afford advocacy professionals the one-on-one meeting right out of the gate. It is necessary to work the circuit and attend the junkets in the hopes of reaching the pinnacle of meeting with a direct contact. Conferences are important to 1) learn the state of the industry 2) benchmark your organization against that of peers 3) Acquire new skills and tactics to apply in your organization 4) meet new vendors, research new technology, and network among many peers. 5) Relax, Rejuvenate, and Regroup for the next campaign or initiative. Here are a few tips to make the most of your conference experience:
- Less is More. Seek out a few quality contacts as opposed to handing out your business cards to everyone and anyone. Some conferences will post an advance list of attendees. Seek out contacts and do a little research before the event to maximize the likelihood of meeting someone that is involved with your industry or could help your career or cause.
- Ask Questions. If you do not have a speaking role at the conference or are a vendor at an industry event, ask a well-developed question that might peak the interest of fellow attendees. Everything in networking is about soft-selling rather than lobbing overtures of price quotes and product sales pitches. Asking a question of a panel of experts before an audience can showcase your interest in the subject matter and reveal your intention of promoting thought-leadership within a particular forum. Who knows your question may solicit some folks to Google your name/organization or connect with you on LinkedIn. Your query could also catch the interest of the media.
- Don’t Limit Yourself to the Agenda. If you are going off-site to a conference make sure that you take full advantage of breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffees, and drinks outside of the set schedule to meet and network on a more personal basis with your colleagues and peers. Many conferences will have built-in networking opportunities that can be leveraged for a meeting later in the conference or when you return to Washington. It should be a cardinal rule to never eat a meal alone during a conference.
- Perfect the Elevator Pitch. Conferences and networking events are high volume opportunities to meet a lot of people. You will undoubtedly start with the shotgun method of giving your elevator pitch to many people before you can rifle it down to more targeted appeals to certain influencers within your industry. Sports, the weather, the destination can be easy ways to strike up a conversation. Reserve your elevator pitch until after you break the ice. Asking someone where they work or where they went to school out the gate isn’t professional.
- Don’t Over Indulge or Divulge. It is always a nice perk to attend a conference is destination like Key West or Las Vegas and this opportunity should not be abused. It is important to keep a balance between work and play and to remember that you’re always on the clock with no room for error. Drink responsibly and do not reveal inner-workings of your organization’s strategy. Off-site destinations in tropical climates make everyone feel comfortable and at ease, but also can be problematic when traditional discretion is not applied.
- First One in and Last One Out. Arrive to the event early and you may have the opportunity to meet the keynote, panelists, or event organizers. Showing up early and showing interest can lead to presenting at a future forum or connecting with a key contact that will likely be hounded directly following the discussion by all of the attendees. Conversely, stick around until the end and be one of the stragglers that are asked to leave the room. Again it comes down to narrowing who you are going to meet and the quality of the conversation. Listen carefully to the session and reference some of the key points. The fact that you are attending a session alongside someone is a natural ice breaker. What did you think of session x? Are you excited to be at the conference in Las Vegas?
- Set Phone Boundaries. Don’t look at your cell phone every minute checking for emails or text message. Notify key stakeholders in your organization that you will be out of the office attending a professional conference and will be unavailable during certain times. Block out a time during the evening or early morning to check email and respond to critical tasks that cannot wait until your return. Treat the conference as if you are at a lunch meeting with a guest. It might be okay to look at your phone once, but if it becomes habitual you appear to be rude and uninterested.
- Relax and Enjoy. Attending a conference should not bring added stress for attendees or even presenters (organizers maybe). You are out of the office and fortunate enough to represent your organization and be a part of a major event within your industry. It is natural to unwind a bit, stay an extra day after the sessions, and visit the local shops, restaurants, and attractions.
Joshua Habursky is the Director of Advocacy at the Independent Community Bankers of America, Chairman of the Grassroots Professional Network, and adjunct professor at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media. firstname.lastname@example.org