Now that in-person conferences and gatherings are starting to be a thing again post(ish)-Covid, it’s time to rethink how you connect with colleagues. The term “networking” has been used in the past, but honestly, we’re not really fans of the way that’s previously been done. Why? Because we’ve all experienced someone “networking” with us and it felt disingenuous, haven’t we? And if we’re truth- telling here, haven’t we all attempted to network in the past and we felt cringey as a result?
We’re cringing just thinking of it. So, how about we reframe “networking” and take a look at some ways you can genuinely connect with colleagues, professionals you want to work with, and human beings in general?
Networking Starts Before the Event
Can you show up to a conference without meaningfully connecting with anyone prior to the event, and then expect to land a book deal? Well, stranger things have happened. And if you do it in a genuine way, it can work. After all, a chance meeting at a conference with someone you don’t know can often have a serendipitous result.
What we’re talking about here is are the colleagues and other professionals that you know. If you’re on social media, comment on their posts, share their stuff, join conversations. Ask them if they’re attending the conference and let them know you’re excited to see them. Join any Facebook group related to the event and hop into discussion there. Yes, we’re talking about somewhat basic social skills here, but there’s a general feeling that we’ve forgotten how to do some of that during the pandemic, so brushing up on your connections and friendships is important.
Connecting at the Event
If you’re an outgoing type of person and have been to the event before, chances are good that you can hit the ground running. If meeting people is a bit more daunting to you, you’ll need to think about how you’ll do that beforehand. Some of these tips are obvious, but trust us when we say we’ve personally witnessed (and possibly participated in) attempted networking that was awkward, leading to lost opportunities.
Tip: While you may have a book to pitch or presentations you’d love to give, don’t let that be your main focus. Great networking is all about authentically connecting with other like-minded people, then seeing where that goes.
- Attend social events at the gathering. Meet-and-greets, happy hours, dinners, garden tours, First-Timers social hour — these events are golden for bumping into people and making happy connections. Nobody’s focused on a seminar or getting to the next workshop.
- Seek out places designated as coffee lounges, press rooms (if you’re press), and “work” rooms. Trust us, event program managers designate spaces like these so people like us can have some downtime, connect, and have quiet conversations. Be aware if it looks like someone is truly there to work, but be open to making friendly eye contact, inviting someone to join you at your table, or chitchatting while getting coffee.
- Have business cards with you at all times. Did we really need to say this? Put your cards in the pocket on the back side of your lanyard (if you are given one), in your tote bag, or in your wallet. Lots of missed opportunities if you meet someone amazing and don’t have anything to give them to stay in touch!
- Redefine the “elevator pitch.” We all smell a memorized elevator pitch a mile away, often delivered in a robotic tone. If your pitch doesn’t sound like how you normally talk, ditch the pitch. Instead of saying, “I cultivate mushrooms for culinary and therapeutic purposes,” say, “I grow mushrooms! I got interested in it about 5 years ago and now it’s my passion.” Instead of, “I develop curriculum for teaching children how to grow a variety of edible plants,” try “I’m about teaching kids how to garden, especially food gardening! Get ‘em started young.” Be yourself and invite conversation about your passion.
- Think of some “ice-breaking” greetings beforehand. No politics, religion, or anything that could be offensive, please. At the registration area: “I can’t decide between the photography session or the video one —— do you know anything about the presenters?” On the garden tour: “I love your shoes! They look way more comfortable than mine today.” At a vendor booth: “I know nothing about peonies! Where do I start?” On the coffee line: “I think I could drink a gallon of coffee this morning –— I didn’t get much sleep after that amazing dinner last night!”
- Ask to be introduced. Is there a publisher or an author you’d love to meet? Find out from a colleague if they can introduce you. One of the best examples in our industry is Kylee Baumle; the woman never met a stranger, as the saying goes. She’s famous for saying, “Oh, you’ve never met him? You have to!” “You need to meet her — you’ll love her.” “He is into xeriscaping like you are; I’m going to introduce you.” Look for the Kylees and ask them to help you connect.
- Don’t avoid the famous person. We’re gonna go ahead and call out team member Jenny on this one. Years ago, she was invited by P. Allen Smith to a private event with other garden bloggers. She avoided him for two days, telling a colleague, “I don’t want to be that cringey hanger-on.” Her colleague said, “He’s your host and it’s exactly why you’re here. Let’s go meet him!” The famous people are still just people. Don’t monopolize their time (don’t do that with anyone, BTW), but do introduce yourself, compliment them on their book/TV show/program, and ask a question if you have one.
- Be bold. If you can’t get an introduction to the person you really want to meet, don’t hide out. Seek out an appropriate time and then stick that hand out: “Hi, I’m Katie Elzer-Peters and I’ve been wanting to meet you!” Literally everyone on the planet is flattered and delighted by that.
- Seek out people with common interests/causes/passions. Workshops or add-on activities are a great way to do this.
- Connect first, meet later. There are hundreds or thousands of people at a conference. Don’t expect an on-the-spot meeting with a publisher about your book when you stop by their booth. Introduce yourself, make your connections, then say, “It was lovely meeting you. How can I contact you about a book proposal that I think is right up your alley?”