It’s the conference season—the time of year when technical members of staff, who are usually kept away from the public, are let out of the office. They don’t always need to have the greatest interpersonal skills to do their job properly, so it comes as a bit of a shock to them to be drinking coffee in a large hall full of other equally ill-at-ease people. How do you start a conversation? How do you get the most out of being away from the office with highly skilled professionals? How do you improve your networking skills?
Conferences usually have an associated exhibition hall full of vendors and, if you watch them, you’ll see these vendors have an easy way about moving toward a group of people, introducing themselves, and saying something like they are taking the temperature of delegates’ opinions about some IT topic, or they are looking for help. Whatever technique they use, they are getting the conversation going around the topic that’s of interest to their company. If they ask about security on personal devices, you might have an opinion, and you might be interested in them demonstrating their new software. For them, it’s job done. They have a business card and a connection.
Start a Conversation
But for ordinary delegates who don’t have an agenda, how can you start a conversation? What if the person doesn’t want to talk to you? The easiest way to start a conversation is to make eye contact and say hello. You can then ask a question, such as: Did you see this morning’s keynote? Have you ever seen so many people here? Did you get parked/from the airport OK/held up in that storm?
The real secret is that most people are happy to talk, but are too polite or too shy to start the conversation. You can quickly move on to questions finding out who they work for, where they travelled from or what they hope to get from this conference. And pretty soon, they’ll ask you the same questions and you’ll be able to identify connections between you: Maybe you’re both worried about CICS and mobile devices, or your new friend has a solution to the problem you’ve been grappling with back at the office. In fact, people love to show off their technical expertise. They want to help. So ask a technical question, and pretty soon you’ll have a lively discussion going.
But what if the person you talk to doesn’t reply or walks away? You need to realize that it’s their problem, not yours. And you find someone else to start talking to, or possibly move on again. The truth is that most people will talk, and once you start saying IMS or DB2 or whatever, others standing nearby will be drawn into your conversation. And because you are all techie people, you can have the most wonderful acronym-rich conversation.
Remember to smile when you approach people. Mention your name (you probably have it on a badge), shake hands and possible exchange business cards. People usually forget names (hence the badges) but try to associate their name with something familiar and then picture that something standing next to them. Mr. Smith might have a large hammer and anvil next to him in your mental picture. It will help.
Build a Relationship
If you want to build a relationship with someone—you imagine that your two companies could work together—then you need to build a rapport with that person. Neuro-Linguistic Programming suggests that you can do that quickly and easily by mirroring some of the things they do. So if they cross their legs, you do too, if they reach for a drink, you do too. We tend to do this naturally, but if you ramp it up, it can be a very effective way of building rapport. But, if you overdo it, then the other person thinks you are making fun of them.
The list of things you might mirror include body posture, hand gestures, facial expressions, weight shifts, breathing, movement of feet and eye movements. You might want to use their name, but not too much or you sound like a telephone salesperson. You want to maintain appropriate eye contact, and you might want to occasionally touch their arm. Or you might want to start by watching the nearest salesperson to see these same techniques!
The secret is to have the confidence to risk starting a conversation with two or three strangers, and to have the self-esteem not to worry if someone doesn’t want to talk back—which would be an unlikely event. Smiling and rapport building are useful thing to be aware of in building on an initial contact. You could set yourself a target to talk to three strangers; just think up a couple of opening remarks that would get you talking to a stranger. Try not to use questions that have yes or no answers—they’re called closed questions—but be willing to ask for technical advice; you don’t have to take it.
Joining a Conversation
But what about if a couple of people near you have just started a conversation? Do you walk away and find some silent people so you can try your opening gambits? Or do you try to join that newly formed group? I suggest you try to join that group first. How do you do that?
Well, the secret is to move toward the group, but stay near the edge—you don’t want to appear threatening! Then you allow your face to follow the conversation. By that, you smile when anything funny is said, you nod in agreement and you look towards the speaker. And they will start to make eye contact with you and accept you as a group member. And then, at an appropriate time, you can make a comment; you’ve joined the group.
And the advantage of networking is that you don’t stand there on your own pretending to do something important on your phone. You do make new contacts. You do share your knowledge and expertise. You do pick up ideas for things you might try in order to solve problems at your site. You do learn from those people. You may find they know about employment opportunities in areas that you are interested in. You may even make a new friend. But at the end of the conference, you will have learned far more than just from the sessions, you will have enjoyed yourself more and you won’t have been standing on your own.
Trevor Eddolls is CEO at iTech-Ed Ltd, an IT consultancy. A popular speaker and blogger, he currently chairs the Virtual IMS and Virtual CICS user groups. He’s editorial director for the Arcati Mainframe Yearbook, and for many years edited Xephon’s Update publications.