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How to Navigate Networking at Conferences

by Nathalie Peña

Socializing at parties is not in my comfort zone, but networking at conferences is. Is it because of the conversations about fulfilling careers, the suspense of getting a job opportunity, the rush of meshing well with another professionally-dressed person? These could be all the reasons and more. 

For many, though, networking at a conference is intimidating, and it often feels forced. It’s scary to have to sell yourself and what you can offer for someone else’s benefit which will, in turn, benefit yourself. The more I think of the “art” of networking, the harder it is distinguish a real connection with a future employer or coworker to one that is being made out of sheer exploitation. It sounds dramatic but can unfortunately be the case sometimes. 

I’m here to say that despite the anxiety and corporate laden stamp that conferences give off, they’re important and can be a lot of fun. So why go to a conference? 

The Reminder To Create: To Feel Inspired

Let’s not just rely on the pretty photos that glow off our phones from Instagram to inspire us. Real-time, face-to-face interaction is what can jolt you back to wanting to work on a creative project you started and never finished. Or, it can remind you that so many other people are struggling to figure out their next step, but are still making triumphs nevertheless. Panels are filled with goosebump-ridden stories of professionals starting their brand from scratch or coming from small towns to work with big names. Feeling inspired to do something similar is what gives me the excitement to attend a conference because I know that could be the motivation I need to work for my goals. 

The Obvious: To Network

Sending applications and emails sometimes isn’t enough. When I meet someone in person, it becomes easier to read them and feed off of the energy they have and whether that’s the energy I want to associate with. You may be bubbly in person but that might not come across on paper. It’s important to take the opportunity to make a great first impression that’ll withstand countless emails later to people you meet at said conference. You have to remember that everyone is there for the same reason as you, to meet people and find the next step to a job opportunity. The high that comes with the networking energy is something I thrive off of because I know that I’m not in it alone. 

The Way To Stay Sharp: To Learn Something New

There’s no other way to keep you on your toes than to always learn something new. Conferences might offer panels filled with smart panelists and topics you don’t talk about on the regular. What if there is a conference on how to get a book published coming straight from authors who have experienced that academic battle themselves? It helps to get a first-hand account from people that have gone through it than digging yourself through internet research (and it’s more entertaining). 

Now time for disecting how to network at said conferences/panels. 

The Goal Isn’t To Give Your Business Card To Everyone: This was something I learned as I went to more panels. I used to base my success on the amount of business cards I gave out to people. Instead of prioritizing quantity, think of the quality of the people you’re handing your information to. You don’t want to be sitting home a week later getting ready to send an email to your new contacts and feeling forced to make a connection with all of them just because you exchanged information. The last conference I attended, I only gave my business card to one panelist that I felt the most drawn too and actually wanted to learn more from. This can save yourself and your contact some time if you are genuinely interested in learning from them and can actually give them something back in return. Because in the end it’s all about an exchange where both parties take something out of the connection. 

Talk To Panelists: That’s what they’re there for! As a shy person myself, I’m here to say that timid people can have the guts to talk to strangers. It’s humbling to know that panelists that you’ve probably seen on a T.V. screen or in an article aren’t hard-to-reach mythical creatures. If you have the opportunity, prepare a question you have for the professional you felt the most inspired by and just have a casual conversation with them. It can lead to you learning something else that wasn’t discussed in the panel to get you to your next step of achieving your goal. 

Write A “Grocery” List: It’s overwhelming going to a grocery store without a list planned. Before you know it, you’ve left the checkout line way over your budget. Think of a conference as a grocery store that you need to be prepared for. Come with a list of questions prepared for the panels you plan to attend and the panelists you plan to speak to. This way you think through what you want to get out of the experience instead of nervously planning questions while you can be in the moment enjoying all the spoken gems being thrown at you. 

Take Notes: Some conferences can be an all-day affair which means there will be a ton of inspiring quotes and useful information constantly being said. The best way to remember those is by taking notes of anything you want to reference. Those notes can help guide you later on when you’re applying to your next job or working on your next creative project. 

For those in NYC, we’re lucky enough to have countless opportunities to network (for free!). I wanted to list off some resources I’ve used to find the next panel to go to. 

Instagram – Since you may follow accounts that inspire you already, it’s possible to come across your favorite person to follow mentioning a panel they will be speaking at. For a lot of cases it can be free! Free + meeting someone you follow and are inspired by = a huge win. 

College Panels -Your local college may have a cool panel that is open to the public. Keep an eye out for flyers around the neighborhood that advertise it. 

NYCxClothes Newsletters – This is an influencer sister-duo whose content I love and they even have a newsletter where they post events happening in NYC each week. Occasionally a free panel is thrown in there too. 

Eventbrite -This is the hub to find every type of event imaginable including free panels and talks hosted by brands. 

Girlboss’ Network Platform – Girlboss launched a platform where women can network, learn from one another, ask any and all questions, and link up together to attend panels or even host their own events. Girlboss also has their own conference, Girlboss rally which is held in L.A. 

Keep calm and network on!

Feature Image via Victoria Morris

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