Imagine you’re at your very first conference after landing a great job. You like your work, but you feel like you’ve ready to move beyond the introductory level. You’re hungry for something bigger, something better. Meeting professionals in your field is a great way to open up new opportunities for collaborations and future career moves. Snowden Becker, Program Manager and Adjunct Faculty at UCLA, recently gave a group of American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB) fellows her advice on how to meet people and make important connections. “If you’re smart," she told them, "you’re already thinking about what you’re going to do next.”
Here are just some of her pro-tips:
1. Talk to strangers.
Contrary to what most responsible parents tell their kids not to do, Becker advises people in the professional realm to talk to strangers. At conferences, she says she doesn’t let her students “congregate in more than groups of two (because) it is not a good use of your time to go to a conference where there are 700 strangers and just talk to the three people you already know.” It’s important to be comfortable with meeting new people in order to expand your network—and don’t wait for them to talk to you. Branch out and initiate conversations with people you don’t know, and don’t be shy about it!
2. Develop a network of people who have networks bigger than you.
Make yourself aware of others’ networks in advanced. If you attend that conference and talk to those strangers, you’ll meet plenty of people on the fly—but you should also have a goal to meet specific individuals. Be aware of certain people they know who would be beneficial for you to meet. Once it’s an appropriate time in the conversation, ask them to introduce you.
3. “Details are doorways.”
In your initial introduction, provide details about the work you do, and make people want to find out more. Make conversations count by providing more information than, for example, “I’m a news reporter.” Instead, maybe say, “I’m a reporter and producer for WGBH News in Boston,” after stating your first and last name. Within that simple sentence, you have indicated who you are, your geographical location, and your job title and position. Now that the person you’re talking with knows you’re a producer and reporter, he or she will probably ask about what you’ve reported and produced. Thus, details are doorways that lead to more discussion.
4. Just have the conversation
Don’t overthink a conversation. Relax and chat, but be mindful about getting your point across while you have someone’s attention. Time is valuable, and you don’t know when you’ll have that person’s attention again. So while it’s important to keep calm and just have the conversation, it is also important to make it worthwhile—especially when people take the time to give you their attention. Find a medium, and act natural!
5. If you’re interested, you’re interesting
Ask people about themselves! It’s important to ask the simple question, “What about you?” However, don’t half-heartedly listen. Invest your attention in what they’re saying the same way you hope someone would do for you. People generally love talking about themselves, but their work may be of value to or set a positive example for you personally.
6. Asking is important
Asking a question is not a sign of weakness, but rather a sign of strength. It takes courage to admit that you don’t know something, but be specific about what you don’t know. Again, make people’s time worthwhile and embrace the opportunity to learn. They are not obligated to give you an answer, so make sure you gratefully pay attention to their response.
7. Experts are humans, too!
It's ok to treat a well-known person in your field like an actual person! If they’re giving an important speech at a huge conference, it’s okay to wish them good luck. It’s also okay to ask them questions about something you don’t know. Don’t be afraid to take advantage of their scope of knowledge. At the end of the day, they’re people just like you.
8. Consider your “liquid factor.”
Drinks can be a great way to catch up with a colleague, but Becker emphasizes the importance of understanding how much alcohol you can handle while still being able to confidently deliver your elevator speech. Depending on what’s at stake, avoiding alcohol might be the better option. Likewise, if you’re more of an introverted person, alcohol could be the confidence-booster that helps you deliver your elevator speech. Whatever the case may be, be cognizant of your alcohol consumption and only have the necessary amount to work to your advantage in a professional environment.
9. Wear clothes with pockets.
When you’re holding a drink in one hand, and a bunch of business cards in the other, it's hard to exchange business cards at the end of a conversation. How do you keep it smooth and not drop your cards or your drink? It really helps to wear clothes that have pockets—especially if you’re clumsy! Keep your business cards in one pocket, and cards you've collected from others in a different pocket. This helps decrease the number of things you have to juggle, and provides a systematic method of exchange that you don’t have to think twice about. If pockets are simply not an option, your conference badge holder is the ultimate pocket to utilize for business cards.
10. Have a look in the mirror
Before you leave your hotel room at a conference, Becker says, “try to catch yourself looking how you look.” In other words, take a sideways glance at how you naturally look. Do you have bad posture, or maybe a stone-cold facial expression? If you don’t look approachable, then people won’t approach you. Stand up straight and confident, and people will want to talk to you. Give off the look you want potential employers to see.
Lizzy Patrick is a 2016 intern for WGBH Forum Network.