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The Introvert's Guide to Conference Networking

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by Lisa Barone, August 15, 2008

Conference networking is one of the most compelling reasons for professionals to attend events in their niche. However, for introverts, the only difference between conferences and your horrifying experience as a 13-year-old in P.E. is that you wasted a considerable amount of money to feel tortured and uncomfortable.

You shell out $1,500 to attend your industry's premier conference, go through the hassle of coordinating time off work and accept that you will be paying out the nose in travel, eating and lodging expenses. Then, when you get there, you don't speak to anyone in the sessions and spend the afterhours hidden away in your hotel room flipping through the same nine television channels. For three days, you avoid the Birds of a Feather lunches, hold up the walls during social functions and effectively meet no one.

Allowing yourself to fall into the Introvert Trap during conference time will hurt not only your personal brand, but the brand of your company as well. It's time to take back control. When its conference time, introverts must put on their game faces and learn the tricks to making connections with ease.

Trick 1 - Show up Prepared: One of the most effective ways to calm pre-show jitters is to show up prepared. You'll only have a few days to meet everyone you want to meet and attend all the events you want to attend. Optimize your schedule by taking a look at the conference agenda a few days prior to the show and marking down everything you want to hit. Take care to check who's speaking on which sessions and which will be crawling with major industry reps. Once you're armed with all of this, create a list of everything you want to do and everyone you want to meet while you're in town. This will help keep you on track in the midst of all the craziness and serve as motivation to get everything on your list covered. It may sound a bit corny, but keeping a conference score card will go a long way in making sure you leave that conference feeling like you've accomplished something.

If there are certain people you want to meet, don't just stalk their schedules; research them so you have something to bring to the table. If you want to meet Michael Gray of Wolf-Howl.com, know that the button to push is Google's over-dominance on the Web. If you want to meet Bruce Clay, know that he's passionate about white hat and ethical search engine optimization. Striking up a conversation is often as easy as knowing what to talk about.

Trick 2 - Start Branding Yourself Before You Get There: It's a lot easier to introduce yourself face-to-face when you have an Internet brand to lean on. A few weeks before the show start reaching out on the social networks and let people know you'll be there. Twitter it. Plurk it. Join that conference's Event page on Facebook. If there is no official Event page on Facebook, create one. Make plans to meet up with people before you're even in town. Start researching who the best connections in your industry are. Who will be able to help you promote your company and your goals the most? These are the folks you'll want to score face time with.

Use this time to start talking publicly about the projects you're working on and get some buzz going. If you're about to release a new blogging widget, plan the release date around the conference. Land in town with something to say.

Trick 3 -- Attach Yourself to an Extrovert: As crazy as it may seem to introverts like us, there are actually people who enjoy being the center of attention. Armed with this knowledge, I've found that one of the best ways to network and work a room is to attach yourself to an extrovert. Extroverts love meeting new people and will jump at the chance to walk you around and introduce you to everyone they know. It's perfect for introverts because they get to meet everyone in the room without ever having to do the actual introduction. And if you've already branded yourself beforehand, folks will be excited to meet you and immediately bring you into conversation.

I'll share a secret with you - I applied the extrovert technique back in 2006 at Search Engine Strategies Chicago. It was one of my first conferences and my first attempt at networking in the search engine optimization industry. One of the first people I met was extrovert Todd Malicoat. Knowing that I'm quite shy in person, I quickly attached myself to him and asked him to introduce me to people. He graciously obliged and that night introduced me to everyone in the room. I was able to ride his coattails all night and share smiles with everyone I had read and heard about online but didn't have the courage to approach myself. It was a networking success.

Beware when using the buddy system, though. Sticking with an extrovert is different than simply huddling in a corner with another nervous soul. Unless you have been surgically attached to the friend that dared come with you, you do not have to stand by their side the entire night. In fact, you shouldn't. Doing so is a great way to ensure that you only speak to one another or those you both know, without ever meeting anyone new. As comforting and warm and fuzzy as it feels, you want to avoid this at all costs.

Trick 4 -- Have A Gimmick: There's a reason the search engine optimization community has seen hat bait, drink bait, a klog and yellow shoes paraded around the conference grounds. Having a gimmick makes it easier for you to approach people and harder for them to ignore you.

Think about it: If you were attending a networking event and a smiling face approached you and asked you to pose for a photo holding a potato, you'd do it, right? Of course, you would. Why? Because it takes more effort to decline the offer than to say yes and grab that potato. And once you agree, you've opened up the door for that person to hold a conversation with you and explain what they're doing. It also ensures that you'll remember their name and face the next day when you spot them walking around the conference hall. That's the power of having a gimmick.

Be careful when applying the gimmick technique. Everyone has different tolerance levels and there's a fine line between being funny and being annoying. Opt for something quirky and unobtrusive like a T-shirt with a provocative saying or something that promotes a cause that benefits someone other than yourself.

Trick 5 -- Don't Use a Gimmick: As effective as the gimmicks above can be, people grow tired of them and see them as fake. Often your best bet is to be genuine and yourself. Be confident knowing that you don't need to force people into silly hats to get them to pay attention to you. Sometimes a firm hand shake and a warm smile over introductions is all you need to forge a real connection with someone. From there it's all about good social graces and lots of friendly smiles.

The worst thing you can do is leave a conference with regret, kicking yourself for missing out on a chance to chat with Matt Cutts or Kevin Ryan one on one. Meeting people and sharing work and life war stories is too valuable to pass up simply because you're an introvert. When you meet someone at a conference, you've met them because you both have similar interests and are involved in the same industry. Use that as your common ground to spark up a conversation. When it comes to conference networking, there's no room for shyness. Be confident and break out. Your personal brand will thank you.

[Next week is the big Search Engine Strategies show in San Jose. If you're getting ready to attend, keep an eye out for members of the Bruce Clay team. We'd be proud to be your extrovert!]


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