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10 tips for meeting people at industry events

As someone who’s brand new to Silicon Valley, one of the most important, yet difficult, things to do is to meet new people. The best ways to meet people in the Bay Area is to have grown up here, gone to Stanford or Berkeley, to work at a company or in role where you meet lots of new people, or any combination thereof. For me, unfortunately, I don’t have any of these. All I have are industry events and conferences.

Conferences are a real pain in the ass – there’s a ton of people, it’s loud, and it can be intimidating. It’s particularly hard if you don’t feel like you belong – either you’re trying to break into an insular crowd, or you’re just starting to learn about an industry.

Here are some tips I’ve learned from going to half a dozen such events in the last couple weeks:

1. Use the time before the conference wisely
The hardest thing in the world is when you don’t know anyone at a conference and you’re expected to fit right in. If you can, use the time before the conference to ask people you’ve met whether or not they’re going to go. If so, that’s great! You can tag along with them and they can introduce you to a couple people.

Another option is to e-mail people that are working at the event, and let them know that you’re new. If they’re nice people, when you see them at the event, they’ll introduce you to a couple people. Either of these options should result in 2 or 3 introductions at the very minimum.

One incredibly important way to use pre-event time is to create a little sound bite about yourself. When you say, “Hi, I’m Joe” you want to be able to follow up with a 30 second, 60 second, or 2 minute blurb about yourself and your interests, depending on the context and interest. You may want to make it a little punchier than usual, and get to the salient points quickly. You need to help other people size you up and fit you into their universe as fast as possible.

2. Arrive early, and get some 1:1 time
When there’s lots of people, and circles of 4 or 5 people that all know each other form, it’s tough to break in. The best time to meet people is when there isn’t much competition, and you can have a quick conversation to introduce yourself. So show up early, find someone who looks bored (checking their phone or whatever), and introduce yourself. That way, you’ll have a tiny bit of familiarity that you can reuse later on in the event.

Another good thing to do, if you show up early, is to catch a couple minutes with the speakers, organizers, or panelists. They’re often milling around, waiting for something to happen, and you have a chance to speak to some of the more well-informed and well-connected people there.

3. Sit next to interesting people, and introduce yourself
There are several bad places to sit during a conference. One is at the very front, where people get intimidated by the speakers, so that the seats are usually empty. Instead, do yourself a favor – sit in the middle of one of the rows, and introduce yourself to the people to the left of you or to the right of you, as the event starts. This is another example of the easier 1:1 interactions that happen because of your captive audience.

Sitting next to people who aren’t interesting, or don’t want to talk? That’s easy, just go to a different seat. If you’d rather be polite, just excuse yourself to go to the bathroom and then come back to sit in a different area. The best part of multi-session conferences is that you can constantly mix with different crowds as you enter and leave the rooms.

4. Break into circles of people
By far, the hardest part of a conference is during the “official” mixers. Oftentimes, you have groups of people who are all friends form, and they talk to each other intensely. If they are nice, they’ll welcome new people in, introduce themselves, and help you join a conversation. Oftentimes, they’ll be so engrossed in a inside baseball sort of conversation that it’s hard to break into a circle and start talking.

The best way to resolve this is to look for easy circles to join. This can be made up of people you’ve met earlier in the conference, so you can catch up and ask them how they’re enjoying things. Another option is 1 or 2 people loitering at the edges, who aren’t part of the action. You can make your own circle that way. Another is to watch for groups that have huge holes, with people standing in a U shaped pattern. You can jump in and fill the circle, and try and jump into the conversation.

How do you jump into a conversation? A question is usually a good start, or an observation if they are talking to something accessible. That way, you can shift some attention towards you, and start participating rather than being a bystander.

That said, if you join a circle, don’t understand anything they’re saying, feel free to jump in and out – don’t feel bad about leaving the group and finding another one that’s more approachable.

5. Invite people to talk to you
Once you’re in a circle, you should make sure to invite people to talk to you. So make a hole for people to come join you, if you can, by standing somewhat perpendicular to the other people. And if people come by and stand there, stop the conversation and introduce yourself. That way it’ll be easy for people to join the conversation, rather than feeling excluded.

6. Bring business cards, and ask for business cards
People go to industry events to meet people, period. So bring your business cards, and do the “card blast” when appropriate. And ask for peoples’ cards after you talk to them for a couple minutes. Don’t be bashful, that’s what these industry events are about. And remember to bring enough cards based on the context of the conference. For a 2 day conference, you’ll want to bring a fistful, rather than a 5 or 6, like you might usually do. Sometimes it might make sense to keep a bunch in your car, or your bag, so you can refill if necessary.

On the other hand, asking for business cards is helpful too, but only if you remember who the people are. If you just grab random ones, it’s a waste of time – instead, focus on having quality, interesting conversations with people, so that it’s memorable enough to associate with a card.

7. After the conference is as important as event itself
After you leave the conference, you’ll often have a bunch of business cards and maybe even a member directory of all the people that attended. Remember to follow up there! Send an e-mail, summarize a point or two in the conversation you had – hopefully a memorable one – and ask for whatever followup is appropriate. That might be a phone call, or a coffee, or just a “let’s keep in touch.” Put them into LinkedIn, or your address book, so that you keep some record of it. LinkedIn is great because it also helps you remember a particular person’s professional relevance to you – otherwise, use Outlook’s address book to annotate comments or notes so you won’t forget months down the line.

8. Learn to spot VIPs
One fun trick is to learn how to spot the VIPs at a conference. Oftentimes, this is very hard because they look like all the other conference goers. But there are ways to tell – first off, they may know the speaker well. So if the speaker is having a 1:1 conversation with random dude X, maybe you want to talk to random dude X to figure out what he’s about – he’s probably a friend or affiliated with the speaker, which is always great.

Small social cues are great to pick up and learn as well – at the airport, the guy in the track suit, blackberry, and small bag is often a senior executive who’s learned how to optimize for travel, whereas a young guy who’s overpacked is a complete corporate newbie. Learning small cues like that can be important.

9. Don’t overdo the conference circuit
Going to events and conferences are nice, but remember that at the end of the day, DOING is more important than NETWORKING. Other than the speakers, the most senior folks are generally not at conferences – they are busy doing things, and they can usually talk to whoever they want. So in general, industry events are usually populated by newbies and marginally senior folks – it’s an alliance of people who aren’t quite senior enough to skip the networking thing altogether.

So the important part is to do enough interesting things outside of conferences, and realize that networking is an investment of time – you still need to turn that potential energy into kinetic energy.

10. And finally, have fun! It’ll get easier, I promise
The first couple times going to conferences and forcing yourself into awkward social situations often isn’t fun. But it gets a lot more fun once you meet a couple people, find yourself talking to the same folks, and generally insinuating yourself into the club. It’s a great experience to meet super smart people, and very rewarding.

If anyone has other tips or ideas, I’d love to hear them!

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