How to network at conferences

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I was at a large conference recently, and a younger quiet changemaker asked me how I networked – he found the prospect really overwhelming, especially at such an event.

I reflected on how I approached it, and here is what I uncovered.

  1. I know I’m not going to be able to meet everyone, and accept it. At this large gathering in particular, I would say I met 15 people well enough to have easy name recall and hope to stay in touch with–6 of them I will actively remain in contact with.
  2. I generally try in advance to determine who I want to connect if the opportunity arises.
  3. As I meet people over time–in breakout sessions, at meals, or other smaller groups–I quickly categorize people as:
    • Group 1: I want to know you better, or
    • Group 2: I don’t need to know you better.
  4. Why people fit in one category or another depends on the circumstances. Friendly? Smart? Shared interests? Work opportunity? etc. For me it’s a gut feeling, not one I consciously think about each time I meet someone. It’s automatic.
  5. As the conference goes on, as I see members of group #1 again, I actively reengage. “How has the day been?” “Did you find _______ that you were looking for?” “Do you think it’s worthwhile to _________?”
  6. As I see members of group #2, I smile and say hi, but don’t actively reengage, so as to focus my time and my energy on Group 1.
  7. In order to build solid relationships, all of this means identifying as many of Group #1 as possible early at the conference so that relationships can be built over time. I take as many opportunities as possible to connect with people in smaller, breakout groups. Near the end of the event I try to solidify the relationship by at least making sure I say goodbye.
  8. If opportunities exist, I try to speak publicly/facilitate a workshop, etc. so that people likewise can find me if we might have a reason to connect.

How do you approach networking at conferences?