It's with a heavy heart that I’m bowing out of this year’s SXSW Interactive Festival due to a scheduling conflict. Being unable to go has sparked me to reflect on past years’ events and why I love the experience so much.
There are many reasons why you might travel from afar, take time out of your busy life and pay way too much of your hard earned [startup] money to attend. Whether you’re representing a Fortune 500 company, a thriving agency, flourishing tech companies, or early stage startups hustling to get their names out there (like us!), SXSW has become a free-for-all schmooze fest sprinkled with innovation, learning and above all, networking.
Don’t be fooled. When I say “schmooze fest” I mean it in a non-derogatory way. It’s a means of connecting with people you may never have expected to meet in your life.
Many people write about their experiences and offer advice to help people master the art of event networking. Forbes has a great list of tips to survive your next event. John Rampton, named one of the top 50 online marketing influencers by Entrepreneur Magazine, wrote about his own strategies for effective self-promotion at an event.
However, having discovered throughout my career that networking is not for everyone, I want to share a few key things I’ve learned that helped me become a better event networker.
1. Settle in with an open posture
Ok, you show up to the event 30 minutes after the suggested start time, which is still 30 minutes before the majority of attendees arrive. Awkward?
It doesn’t have to be. Chill out, grab a drink; talk to the bartender/event hosts. Find a prime [standing] spot where you can be involved with the crowd, but far enough that you’re removed from any mosh pit-esque scenarios should things get cray.
If you do arrive right at prime time, the same concept still applies; get yourself comfortable. Recognize that most people in the room are in the same situation. They know very few people but are open to meeting new ones. Present yourself at the event as you would in any other social situation. The more at ease you are with yourself and your surroundings, the more people will want to engage with you.
My simplified version of an overcomplicated public speaking concept is to take a moment before blasting into conversations. Focus, breathe in, think, breathe out, look for an opening, engage, and finally, speak.
2. Start small and avoid pushing products
Now that you’ve mastered how to get comfortable, you need to decide how you will talk with people.
Eeee-easy sales guy. NEVER lead by handing out business cards or blurting out your elevator pitch. Your boss will have understandably assigned you a quota of prospects or closed deals to bring back from the event. But there is nothing worse for a creative person or entrepreneur than being read a script about why your solution is the best thing since sliced bread. Most people attending events like SXSW simply want to rehash a panel they just listened to, enjoy whatever live music is performing, or engage in light conversation about topics unrelated to the event. Provide people a genuine reason to take an interest in you and they will naturally develop an interest in what you do. This is a far more effective approach to constructive networking and prospecting than shoving your script down their throats.
Here are some tips you can do to develop that bond:
Find a common ground in shared thoughts on the panels
Discuss new and emerging industry trends
Offer interesting details about your new creative projects
Branch into non-work related matters such as where you’re from, what you like about the trip, music/art, and life in general.
On the flip side, these are some of the things to avoid:
Expressing overt opinions about politics/religion/money/status/luxurious possessions or toys.
3. Be inviting and open to conversation
Alright, you had one good conversation. Now how do you maintain that vibe?
First thing’s first. It’s an old cliche but a smile really does go a long way! It’s the simplest way you can make people want to talk to you. People will respond to [and trust] you more if you smile. If you can also maintain a comfortable amount of eye contact during the conversation, they’ll return your smile and become more relaxed with you.
Be aware of your body language and how you present yourself. Loosen up and remain standing to appear interested in your surroundings. Don’t block people out of conversations by leaning or stepping in front of them. Keep your arms uncrossed and at your sides rather than folded across your chest. And above all else, KEEP YOUR CELL PHONE IN YOUR POCKET!
Another quirk to be conscious of is your height, and how you compare to many of the other attendees. If you are taller than many people around you, don’t be afraid to show it. Squatting down to stand level with some of us vertically challenged people is not professional or welcome.
If you’ve spent a little time indulging yourself at the bar, then ESPECIALLY avoid leaning on people after one too many martinis. Nobody at the event wants to be your support beam.
4. Show your quirks so people are comfortable with you
Each individual person has their own unique set of quirks and characteristics, and more often than not appreciate when others are comfortable enough to show some of their own peculiarities. People respond better to other people than they do to robots.
Be real, be genuine, and be vulnerable. Allow people to see your real personality and let it shine. If you have a passion or are overtly creative in your work and personal life, you’re in great company at places like SXSW. Show people what matters to you and forget about any criticism that you might receive from the odd bad apple. Your personality traits are what make you interesting so embrace them.
5. Close and follow up
When I say “close,” I don’t mean it in a sales-y way.
It’s important to stay connected with the people you meet as you prepare to go home. Once you’ve build a comfortable rapport, you can exchange business cards, add each other on LinkedIn, and even send a quick email on the spot to ensure you have each other’s contact info.
You want to imply to your new friend that your time getting to know each other was valuable, and that you intend to follow up with them in the future. There are some great articles about building relationships after you’ve left an event that can help you continue to build on the connection you made together. This may result in immediate new business between your two companies, or your new friend could be the bridge that connects you to a whole new batch of prospective clients. Either way, there is value in upholding that new bond.
What are some of your ideas for successful event networking? Shoot us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we may feature your suggestion in a new piece of content.