There’s nothing like a good conference. Who doesn’t enjoy SPIE Optics + Photonics or look forward to Photonics West every year?
Most professionals attend conferences with a specific purpose: to present a poster, give a talk, serve as an expert on a panel, or to actively look for a new job. But many erroneously think that once they complete their conference “activity,” they can be a passive participant. Alternatively, if they are not looking for a job or giving a talk, they don’t attend at all.
However, actively engaging in conferences — at any stage in your career — is a necessity and should be an essential element of your career strategy. These gatherings represent a golden opportunity to network — that is, to build mutually beneficial partnerships with others.
In fact, meetings like Optics + Photonics and Photonics West provide singular opportunities to access and learn from decision makers, appropriately promote yourself and your brand, and discover prospects that can lead to employment, awards, and other game-changing career experiences.
But what if you’re more comfortable taking your drink and hiding behind a plant than circulating and chatting at conference mixers? What if you’d rather run to the lab than approach an industry leader out of the blue?
Whether you consider yourself an introvert, socially uncomfortable, or just a networking newbie, fear not. Here are some tips to help make the most of your next conference.
DON’T WING IT
First, don’t wing it. If you simply show up at a conference and participate in whatever events catch your fancy, you’re likely to miss the best networking opportunities.
Before attending the conference, familiarize yourself with its program. Start reading the program about a month in advance.
GO TO SPECIAL EVENTS
In addition to attending talks and workshops, set aside time for special events such as town halls, career events, meet-and-greets, and other networking-centered affairs. Pencil in time to walk the exhibit hall and go to poster sessions and any non-technical events.
Go to the job fair and SPIE Women in Optics reception if they are part of the program and consider taking a course.
CULTIVATE A DIVERSE NETWORK
Many symposia hold multiple conferences simultaneously. Even if your area is nanomaterials, mosey over to some of the talks (and mixers) that are part of an organic sensor or medical imaging conference. Inspiration — and opportunities to meet new colleagues — can come anytime and from anywhere.
MAKE APPOINTMENTS AHEAD
If you know you’d like to meet with fellow attendees, request appointments with them at least two to three weeks before the conference. They are busy too, so it’s wise to get on their calendars beforehand.
And even if the person you want to meet is not on the program (i.e., s/he isn’t speaking or presenting a poster), it’s OK to reach out to ask if s/he will be attending, and, if so, whether her schedule would allow a short meeting.
When making plans to meet, ask for short appointments, such as a coffee meeting. The other person may not have time for a lunch or dinner, but s/he can probably squeeze in 15 minutes over a cup of joe.
LEVERAGE THE EXHIBIT HALL
Don’t just wander around the exhibit hall aimlessly looking for free pens and cup holders. Instead, try to learn new things and make connections that will serve you well long after those free pens have run dry. Photonics West has hundreds of exhibiting organizations, so carefully study the list of exhibitors and map out the locations of the ones you really want to visit.
DON’T EAT ALONE
At most conferences, attendees flow into restaurants within a few blocks of a convention center. At mealtimes, you can usually identify fellow conference participants because they tend to keep their name tags visible.
If you see someone from the meeting eating alone, don’t be afraid to ask, “Do you mind if I join you?”
HAND OUT BUSINESS CARDS
Bring business cards to the conference. If you are giving a talk, sitting on a panel, or presenting a poster, put a sticker on the back of your card with the name, date, time, and location of your presentation. This way, whenever you hand out your card, you can easily promote your talk.
BE AN EARLY (AND FRIENDLY) BIRD
Arrive early to talks and sit near someone you don’t know. This is a great opportunity to network, especially for introverts, because there is a reason to speak with the other person: You are both here to attend the session.
Furthermore, this networking has an “expiration date,” so you won’t be stuck making conversation indefinitely.
BE A VOLUNTEER
Volunteering at a conference is your ticket to achieving more of your conference (and career) goals than you thought possible. And quite frankly, very few people take advantage of this opportunity.
Volunteering at a conference establishes you as a professional and a hard worker, allows others to observe your dedication to your work, gives you easy access to networking opportunities, and opens doors to leadership and other volunteer experiences.
A few years ago, I gave a workshop to the SPIE Student Chapter leaders at Optics + Photonics. During a break, I chatted with a high school student who was there only because he had asked for the opportunity to volunteer and was granted the chance to do so by SPIE.
I mentioned his bold measure in my talk just as the president of SPIE entered the room. The next thing I knew, the president was also praising the student, and they ended up meeting because of this.
BRING A GREAT ATTITUDE
Yes, it’s a cliché, but making sure there’s a smile on your face as you approach someone or enter the room for a mixer can go a long way toward laying the foundations for productive relationships. No one wants to chat with someone who isn’t happy to be there, is looking at his/her shoes, or is reading a text while simultaneously speaking.
Show people that you are serious about your craft and about their craft by recognizing that in-person networking is a privilege and an honor and is, in fact, enjoyable.
This doesn’t mean that you have to be the life of the party or change your personality from being an introvert to an extrovert. Rather, show up with the expectation that you will take pleasure from the experience of participating in the conference. That enjoyment will be infectious and will help to fuel your conversations.
Networking Is Work But It Gets Results
While “born connectors” might make networking look effortless, it isn’t. The more time and energy you put into making and developing career-enhancing relationships, the better your results will be.
When you optimize your time before, during, and after a conference, you will be pleasantly surprised by the relationships you forge and the opportunities you uncover.
And who knows? In our increasingly connected world, your greatest future success might be a direct result of the networking you do at your next conference.
Conference Apps Can Help with Networking
Conference apps for your smartphone are often full of hidden treasures to help you network.
For example, the SPIE conference app lists all attendees, allows you to send messages to these attendees, and helps you tweet and retweet relevant conference messages directly from your device.
The apps for SPIE and other conferences can also connect you to other social media sites, announce newly added events and activities, and even give you transportation options to and from the convention center.
Tweeting Before, During, and After a Conference
Twitter is especially useful for conference networking because you can tweet and follow tweets with the conference hashtag.
You’ll get incredibly useful insight about leaders, hot topics, and popular sessions. Often, this information isn’t shared anywhere else.
You’ll also discover who the trendsetters and other established leaders are in the community and get a sense for potential collaborators. You can retweet these individuals’ tweets to help establish and amplify your brand and demonstrate your dedication to the community.
And by doing all of this, you’ll have a reason to contact your newfound colleagues after the conference.
Enjoy your SPIE conference opportunities!
–SPIE member Alaina G. Levine is a science writer, professional speaker, corporate comedian, STEM career consultant, executive communications coach, and author of Networking for Nerds: Find, Access, and Land Hidden Game-Changing Career Opportunities Everywhere (Wiley, 2015). Parts of this article were drawn from this book, which is specifically about networking strategies for scientists and engineers. Levine is founder and president of Quantum Success Solutions, an enterprise advancing the professional expertise of both nerds and non-nerds alike. Follow @AlainaGLevine.