For many natural-born networkers, attending their first PRSSA National Conference or any similar type of large-scale professional development event can seem like a dream come true — oodles of fresh faces to meet and greet, all the while connecting and trading Twitter handles with both students and professionals from every corner of the country.
But for most people, showing up for the first time at a large conference in a hotel ballroom with nearly 1,000 people — of whom you personally might know just a handful — is more than a little daunting.
In a blog post I wrote just a few months ago, I pointed out the fact that, “Few people feel right at home walking into a room full of people they don’t know and making those initial connections.”
But does that give you an excuse to stay holed up in your hotel room to avoid the pressure?
No — not if you want to use your PRSSA 2013 National Conference trip investment wisely, and not if you want to get a substantial competitive leg up on your formidable job-market competition.
Hence, the first rule of effective networking: Show up!
National Conference is a real-deal, in-person event where you meet people face-to-face, talk person-to-person and dialogue eyeball to eyeball. It isn’t distance learning. You can’t get the value of this interaction from social media, and you also can’t engage with it sitting by yourself in your hotel room surfing your smartphone.
This leads me to several other critical rules of networking you should abide by before walking into that big room full of strangers:
- Keep your networking goal in mind. Different people might have different goals at a Conference event. Hopefully among your goals is a desire to meet both fellow students as well as professionals who can provide new career perspectives and connections, and even more importantly, the starting points to lasting friendships.
- Dress for success and “hire me” first impressions. Don’t forget that while you will see and interact most closely with fellow students, you also will be meeting many professionals at the Conference as well. Make a strong impression by looking and acting the part of a confident, educated and enthusiastic pre-professional. Read one of my favorite “dress for success” guides here.
- Introduce yourself with a smile, a firm (but not crushing!) handshake, a clear speaking voice and friendly eye contact. Show confidence, but with a friendly tone (i.e., not “over-confident,” which is off-putting). Apart from making a positive first impression, remember that networking events can sometimes be loud, with hundreds of others speaking and even music playing in the background. It’s important to use both verbal and visual cues to show you’re engaged in the conversation.
- Keep a few conversation starters in your back pocket. At PRSSA Conference, a good conversation starter is to ask others what Chapter they’re from, and getting a sense of how many others from their school are attending. Hopefully you can then get introduced to those other students, and voila, you have already started your own on-site network. If speaking with a professional, ask about his or her current job and career path, and share a few specific things you hope to accomplish in the next few years.
- Don’t focus the conversation on yourself. The best way to make yourself interesting to others is to show interest in them. Don’t spend too much time talking about yourself; be sure to inquire about the other person.
- Bring business cards, but don’t tote a stack of résumés (unless you’re attending a résumé critique session). National Conference is a great place to meet professionals, but generally it’s viewed as a turn-off to push your résumé on someone whom you just met. Instead, trade business cards, or equally effective, keep your smartphone handy and charged so that you can ask for and scan/enter their contact information in order to connect on Twitter or LinkedIn later that day or evening.
Have a networking question? Tweet it out to @marybethwest and I would be delighted to chime in with some advice! Happy conferencing, and hope to see you in Philly!
Mary Beth West, APR, owns a public relations firm in Greater Knoxville, Tenn., celebrating 10 years in business this year. As a student from the University of Tennessee in the early 1990s, she served on the PRSSA National Committee and later went on to serve the Public Relations Society of America National Board of Directors. She is a 1996 inductee into the PRSSA Hall of Fame. Follow her on Twitter @marybethwest, and connect with her on LinkedIn as well as her blog, In the Profession.