Conferences are a booming business—Quartz held its own Next Billion gathering last week—and your company may pay thousands of dollars to send you to a big-name event. How do you make sure it’s worth the money and convince your boss to let you go next time? We turned for advice to a conference veteran: Yossi Vardi, often described as the tech guru of Israel. At 71 years of age, and with experience in over 70 different companies (either as a founder, manager or investor), Vardi has been to more than his fair share of conferences and also hosts the DLD Tel Aviv Digital Innovation Festival.
Here are some pointers from Vardi, as well as Quartz reporters and editors who have been to not a few conferences themselves:
Preparation is crucial for using your time efficiently. If it’s your first showing at a conference, find people who’ve been before and get them to tell you what’s worth attending and what’s not, as well as whom to meet.
An extra night in a hotel might seem indulgent, but it can pay for itself in the value you get out of the event. Arrive the day before a conference starts and work from the hotel that day. When everyone else at the opening reception is haggard from their flights, you’ll be fairly relaxed and in a better state to network.
If you hang your name badge around your neck it can be hard for people, especially casual passers-by, to see. Instead, put it as high as you can on your chest and next to the shoulder of the arm you shake hands with—so for most people, on the right lapel. That puts it directly in people’s line of sight when you greet them.
Quartz reporter Matt Phillips suggests that loitering near the coffee table is a sure-fire way of meeting different people.
People often go to the coffee area when they’ve got no one to talk to. So as they’re filling up it’s a good time to scope out their name tag and decide whether to start a conversation. Coffee-related lines work well like, “This coffee is actually not terrible.”
Spend time with the conference program in advance and pinpoint a few talks or events worth going to. If you’re at a loose end, they’ll give you things to do, and something to talk about. But let serendipity and chance encounters guide you.
There’s a reason why an increasing number of conferences are happy to live-stream their talks and panels: They know that’s not what people pay for. Big-name speakers may draw the crowds, but Vardi says going to talks is like visiting an aquarium. “You look at the fish and they are doing their shtick and you cannot interact with them.”
Instead, Vardi says, spend time in the hallways. It’s the chance to meet lots of people with similar interests, and that’s the only thing that makes a conference an irreplaceable experience.
If someone you want to talk to is standing alone, just walk up and say hello. The name tags at conferences “imply a social contract” that people are open to discussion, Vardi says.
If your target is talking to someone else, get into his field of vision from some distance away and walk up to him calmly but confidently, looking straight at him. He will usually become aware of your approach before you get there. You then have a window to interrupt politely, introduce yourself, and either join in or agree to talk later. There’s nothing more irritating than having a conversation with someone else hovering on the edge.
If you spend your day at the conference and your evenings in a hotel room, Vardi says, you’re doing it wrong. Instead, a “good strategy is to create a dinner and invite people so you can create a private network within the conference.”
Get to know the organizers and try to help them out, says Vardi. If you’re a constructive member of the community, you may be able to suggest other people to invite—and nothing builds capital with contacts like getting them invited to a conference they want to go to.
Want to track down someone who you know is at the event? Tweet at them: “@soandso I’m at #theconference; would like to talk to you about widgets. Can we meet up?” A handful of intelligent comments about the conference on Twitter, using its hashtag, are also a good way to broadcast your presence.
For some events you can use a site like Lanyrd to find out who will be there and their Twitter handles; it’s also a guide to which panels and speakers are generating buzz, and other information that may not be in the conference program.
It’s all too easy to spend half the conference following the chatter on Twitter. It’s telling that the tech-savvy Vardi didn’t once mention social media when we asked about making the most of your time at conferences.
Don’t attend a conference and then go back to your day job without taking the time to reflect on it. Note down the names of the people you met. “This is very important,” says Vardi, who suggests creating a spreadsheet with the name, position, contact details and the conference at which you met the person.
Going to every relevant conference is inefficient and costly. Vardi says that each conference attracts a certain demographic. Choose the conference based on the types of people that you’re likely to meet. Once you find three or four conferences that you like, keep going back and “become part of the ecosystem… People know you and you feel welcome.”