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January 16, 2017
8 Tips That Will Turn You Into a Conference Commando
 
Hate to go to industry conferences and trade shows? You’re not alone, but avoid attending conferences at your peril.
 
Why?
 
There’s no better place to network and market yourself than industry conferences and trade shows. Count the advantages. Everyone important in your industry or job function is gathered in one place. People that are impossible to reach by email, in person, or on the phone are available and receptive to meeting new people.
 
In talking to over a hundred new graduates and young professionals for my new book, Graduate to a Great Careerone thing stood out about people who had a strong network and multiple job offers. They were conference commandos who knew how to leverage attending conferences and trade shows. Here are eight tips I learned from them:
 
1. Do your recon
Planning is everything. You’ll be amazed at how many conferences and trade groups there are in every industry. Study the conference website. Who are the speakers and companies represented? There are the sexy events that can be a lot of fun and provide good celebrity spotting, and the serious conferences where you are more likely to meet the right people in your industry and job function. Prioritize based on two important things: who you will meet and how much it will cost.
 
2. Attend on the cheap
Don't let money prevent you from going. Regional events are cheaper than big national events and closer to home so you save on travel costs. Discounts are often available for young professionals and students at many conferences, and you can offer to work at the event for a discount or free attendance. While staying in the conference hotel is best for networking, you can use AirBnB or try to stay with a friend to stay to save on hotels.
 
3. Reach out in advance to key people 
Few people reach out to speakers and industry leaders in advance. That’s why this tactic can be so successful. Look for speakers at companies you are targeting for a job and reach out via email or InMail and ask for a few minutes of their time at the event. If you don’t hear back, go up to them at the end of their talk and comment about a particular point they made in their presentation.
 
4. Look the part 
You’ll be meeting a lot of new people at events. Despite how often we’ve been told, “Don’t judge a book by its cover,” we do it every day. First impressions are powerful and they are largely visual impressions: how you look, what you are wearing, your body language, and other physical clues. Wear what’s appropriate for each event, and project energy and warmth. Stand tall, shake the hand of new acquaintances, and let your eyes reflect your upbeat attitude.
 
5. Always ask for a card
It’s smart to ask for a card, not just hand out yours. By the end of an event you should have a dozen cards or so from people you’d like to know better. Make sure you have enough of your business cards on hand and keep them in an accessible place like a jacket pocket. Jot a few notes down on each person’s business card after you meet them or later that evening. And follow up when you get home even if it’s just to say how their presentation or the talk you had got you to thinking about something.
 
6. Work the halls and breaks
Conference commandos realize that the real networking takes place outside of the big meetings, so they maximize interaction in the halls and here and there. Talk to everyone, everywhere – even in the elevator, restroom, or morning line for coffee. Your conference dog tags make for an easy icebreaker. Go to the welcome reception and cocktail hours when people are relaxed and open to new people.
 
7. Have an engaging pitch
Tell everyone why you are there and what you are looking for, ideally in a memorable “elevator pitch.” A good elevator pitch is a punchy, succinct, and convincing summary of what’s different about you and the value you bring to a business situation. One colleague pitched herself as “360 degree marketing manager with both strong marketing analytics and the ability to capture the pulse of the consumer mindset.”
 
8. If you’re shy, go with a friend but don’t stay together
If you’re an introvert or just plain intimidated by crowds, go with a friend, but break apart to meet people on your own, then come together every half-hour or so. If you meet someone interesting, bring your friend over and made an introduction. You’ll look like someone who really knows how to make the most of industry events.
 
You’ll find, if you take going to conferences and trade shows seriously, that it’s the best way to get into a company. The company barricades are down. There’s nothing stopping you from reaching the people and companies you want to know.

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Catherine Kaputa is a personal brand strategist, speaker and author. She is the author of the best-selling You Are a Brand. Her new book is Graduate to a Great Career: How Smart Students, New Graduates and Young Professionals Can Brand Themselves for Success out in April 2016. She is the founder of SelfBrand.
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