Having just attended CogX 2022 the benefits of these sorts of conferences are at the forefront of my mind. It was clear to me though, that some days felt more effective and beneficial than others. By the last day, I had got my process and execution perfected such that I hope I have something you find interesting to share.
I will be discussing how to make the most of conferences, or more local meet-ups/talks and the networking opportunities they present. By the end of the last day, I was approaching most people I spoke to and connecting with people I previously spoke to individually.
There is a lot to be learnt from some fascinating speakers with a breadth and depth of experience to share. These speakers set the tone for the event, defining the type of people who will be interested and turn up to hear them speak. Not just out of respect for the authority on the topic they speak on but for your own personal growth make sure to listen closely and take notes.
A useful trick here is to retweet an organiser’s tweet and reply tweet all the interesting notes or takeaways you have. This can help build your personal brand and give value back to your followers, while also taking notes.
However, the greatest benefit to be gained from any one of these events is conversing/connecting with other people. They have shared interests in what the speaker has to say. You can try to get a quick conversation with the speaker, but they will be swamped with other attendees with the same thought.
Instead, approach others in the audience and do so with at the forefront of your mind, the knowledge that they are here for the same reason. It can be hard and uncomfortable to start those conversations. So, take the initiative to approach someone, knowing you are doing you both a favour.
Finally, go to these events with a clear goal, be it to inspire, advise or get to know new technology, this will help you make the most of them.
Time & Place
Of course, it is important to network at the correct time and place. Wait until the speakers have finished, there is often a fifteen-minute break between the talks. Alternatively, the corridor or outdoor sections where people are walking from one talk to another may be good chances to approach someone, but it can be hard to tell if they are rushing to a particular talk or meeting. Risk the approach and be prepared that they may not be receptive.
The best situations are areas, maybe with free water or coffee, that are designed and designated for networking. See someone on their laptop, maybe they have some important work to finish or maybe they are just keeping busy. See someone standing checking their phone, they are much more likely to just be avoiding awkwardly standing on their own, meaning they are the ideal person to approach.
It is always going to be uncertain; this is talking to strangers of course but with a little confidence, and resilience to an occasional polite rejection, the ability to meet new people can be a superpower.
Once you have your mindset clear, now you are ready to start talking to someone. Some actionable tips for speaking to individuals are:
- Open with “Hey, how are you doing” or something to that effect.
- Shake hands, three shakes are usually right for someone new (just one if you have met before) and make eye contact
- Then ask, “What are you working on?”, as a more interesting question than who are you working for, they will likely tell you their company or employer’s name as they answer this question.
Alternatively, if the situation warrants, join a group, especially when everyone in the room is in some sort of group or 1-to-1 conversation:
- To join a group of two you will likely need to have met one of the members before
- For groups of 3 or more, it can be easy to just stand nearby and start listening
- Listen then introduce yourself at the right moment
Other good questions to ask:
- What talks have you attended/enjoyed/learnt most from?
- What are your thoughts on the last talk?
- Use relevant details to tailor questions
- What are your biggest problems? What keeps you up at night?
Be Interested and Interesting
It is vital in any conversation but especially when trying to make a good first impression that you listen attentively. Make eye contact. Ask relevant questions and people will be delighted to talk about themselves. Although I believe hearing about others is more interesting and novel, eventually they will want to hear what you do. It is a good plan to have an elevator pitch ready.
“…helping company remove data silos by creating a single source of truth, using AWS, Snowflake, dbt, terraform and QuickSight”
This a great place to start and then I usually relate to Transport for Greater Manchester, one of our most well-known clients and explain we helped make the contactless card payment work in the cloud. Next, get personal and talk about some of the recent projects you have been working on. These descriptions need to be pitched at the correct level. This will depend on if you are speaking to someone non-technical, a software engineer or data specific engineer.
Connect and Move On
Once you have got a feel for who the person is and they know a little about you, the conversation has mostly run its course. If you are a chatty person, it can be easy to keep the conversation going and stay in your comfort zone. However, to make the most of these networking events you need to talk to as many people as you can, and they are likely there for the same reason.
If you really got on with them, you could arrange to meet them again soon. So, the goal now is to end the conversation on a high, interesting point, question, or joke. There are a few key phrases that may be useful at this stage:
- “It was great to meet, let’s connect”
- LinkedIn, sometimes email or WhatsApp
- “Well, I’ll let you get the chance to speak to some other people”
- Future call to action
- “Let’s stay in touch, it would be great to hear how X/Y/Z is going in a few months”
When connecting on LinkedIn there is the ability to personalise an invite. You get a prompt to add a note when you connect to someone on a desktop browser, but this is hidden on mobile. Clicking the three dots on a profile and selecting personalise an invite will allow a note to be added to. If you are connecting with someone you do not know at all it is great to add context, so they are more likely to accept your request.
I also like to use this when meeting people in real life to remind us both where we met. It will appear as the first message in the chat between us.
Top tip: I keep my planned message on a notes page ready to copy as a standard message such as “Great to meet you at CogX, let’s stay in touch”.
Depending on how in-depth the conversation was it may be worth making notes of the key points of the conversation to follow up on. A week or so later it can be great to solidify that connection by reaching out. Reference details of your conversation if you can and plan to have a call or a catch-up soon. After a good conference or event, you may have a few stand-out new connections. Why not take these post-conference interactions to the next level by inviting a select few for some post-work drinks? This allows you to spend time building those connections you felt had real potential after the event is finished. You can also look more objectively at all the people you met.
Hopefully, you are now feeling more than ready to make the very most of your next networking opportunity. Remember you only get out of these events what you put in on the day and follow up after. Networking is a numbers game. You must be in the right place, at the right time. Eventually, you will meet the right people that allow you to level up your career or business.