How to Network at a Business Conference

By Sharon Anne Waldrop

BlueSuitMoms across the contry know that one of the quickest paths to career advancement is via the route of networking with other professionals. Conferences, conventions and seminars are great places to impress the right people and start new business relationships. Networking, or what is commonly known as "working the room," at such events is the key you need today to open the door to new business opportunities tomorrow.

One Chance to Make a First Impression
Recent research confirms that first impressions are established within the first 30 seconds of meeting someone. It's easiest to make the right impression the first time, rather than try, to repair a poor impression later.

How do you do this? "First, think about your image," says Dr. Norma Carr-Ruffino, professor of management at San Francisco State University and author of The Promotable Woman and The Innovative Woman. "The image you project comes directly from the inner image you have of yourself and your relationships." Dr. Carr-Ruffino's advice is to become very clear in your mind about the type of image you want to project to your business associates.

The next step is to think about your current relationships, or new ones that you anticipate. "Imagine a relationship based on mutual respect, powerful alliance, clear communication, shared goals and similar qualities of effective business relationships," says Dr. Carr-Ruffino. Carry this picture around in your mind.

Goals and the Corporate Culture
It is a good idea to set some general and specific goals for the outcome of a business event. Dr. Carr-Ruffino says a general goal for a conference you plan to attend might be: "I'll vitalize current relationships and establish powerful new relationships." She says that a specific goal might be: "I'll make at least three contacts that will help me find a new supplier (or assistant or job or whatever)."

"Just before you go into a meeting, whether it's one-on-one or a large group, remind yourself of the image you want to project and the relationships you want to establish," says Dr. Carr-Ruffino. Develop some key words that are brief but powerful reminders, such as: "I am a powerful, credible professional woman" or "We have a mutually powerful relationship."

Women who have made it up the corporate ladder to top management levels have generally said that it's a little like walking a tightrope. "This means that you must be sensitive to the corporate culture and the people within it. You must tune into the right balance of warmth and determination, of empathy and toughness, and so forth," explains Dr. Carr-Ruffino.

Who Should Say the First Word - You!
How do you start a conversation at a business event with the person behind an unfamiliar face? "You can comment about the last speaker, or the book in the person's hand, or the information on their name badge," says Shirley Kawa-Jump from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, owner of KAWA Communications, a PR and marketing services company. She is also the author of How to Publish Your Articles. "Chances are, they are just as nervous and alone as you and will welcome that invitation to converse." Kawa-Jump has attended at least a dozen conferences in the past few years.

"With 'big' people, you need to do your homework," says Kawa-Jump. "Most conferences will tell you ahead of time who will be there. Research the people who will be there - read their bios."

There's always a chance you'll be seated next to or standing beside someone who is a valuable network resource. "I once ended up having lunch with a senior editor from a publishing house because I'd done my homework," says Kawa-Jump. "I found out she had freelanced for some of the same places as I did. This was the opening I needed for a conversation, and ended up bringing us together for an hour-long chat. Years later, she still remembers me when we run into each other."

Kawa-Jump shares an important reminder: "You never know who will be valuable in your professional career. It could be that one shy woman sitting at the corner, looking like she's hoping the floor will swallow her up." Even if she isn't a good networking contact, you are a good network for her when you talk to her. Don't make it all about you, make it about genuinely getting to know your peers and others in the industry.

Networking Today = Business Opportunities Tomorrow
A new business relationship can result in money making opportunities. "I can't think of a single conference where I haven't left with something of value in terms of my work ," says Kawa-Jump. "Either it's a lead for more work, an assignment for writing, an invitation to submit my work." She adds, "I make sure to have my business cards with me at all times (and choose my clothes to make sure I have pockets, so I can eliminate a bulky purse or briefcase) and hand those out as much as I can."

Once, at a conference for a chamber of commerce event Kawa-Jump met two clients who later contracted her to do marketing writing for them. It was a matter of striking up a conversation with them at their booth and mentioning what she did, plus handing them her card.

"I have met clients who eventually either used my marketing services or referred me to someone who did; editors who have requested my work or asked me to write for them; and I met my first agent at a conference," says Kawa-Jump.

Remember - It's not only what you know, but who you know that will guide your career in the right direction. Concentrate on the type of first impression you want others to remember, and get ready to start a conversation with the person behind that unfamiliar face.

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Sharon Anne Waldrop is a freelance writer from Crestline, California. She is a wife and mother of four children.