There’s nothing like a good conference. I am a certified conference addict and I attend as many as I can each year. I love hearing the exciting presentations, meeting new people, gaining insight about new trends and innovations, and discovering novel ways to look at problems. From attending conferences, I have been able to move my career in new directions as I have met interesting people who have given me amazing advice and ideas.
I would have to say that my success – that is, the fact that I am in a career and job that brings me both joy and intellectual challenge – is a direct result of networking at conferences.
And it should come as no surprise that one of my favourite conferences is my beloved Lindau (#NerdHeaven). It is hard to believe but the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting (#LINO18) is about six weeks away. Did you know that this conference, which this year will be focused on physiology and medicine, will feature a staggering 40 laureates and 600 young scientists from across the globe? That is a lot of potential networking.
If you are planning to attend, you may be wondering how you can effectively leverage your time at Lindau to meet and greet as many people as you possibly can. But like many early-career professionals, you might also be new to networking and concerned that you might be overwhelmed by both the quantity and the quality of all the brilliant brains with whom you may come in contact.
Fear not, Fellow Nerd! I am here to help and ease your mind as you jump into this networking paradise.
The first thing you should know about networking is that it is not a dishonourable activity, akin to selling a used car that is a piece of junk. In fact, networking is the exact opposite of this and is the most honourable action you can take in your career. The reason this is so is because networking is not about what can I take or get from you – rather, it is about what can I give to you, and what can I contribute to your team, organisation and project.
Here’s a very simple and clear definition: Networking is a spectrum of activities that starts with the first point of contact I have with someone and aims for a mutually-beneficial alliance, where we are both providing value in various forms and functions over time. The win-win aspect of networking can last a lifetime, and is especially important, because when you look to offer something to someone in a networking partnership, you will find that hidden opportunities will be offered to you. Many of these opportunities are not necessarily measurable or even tangible (it could be something as simple as having a conversation with an established star in your field), but they can lead to critical career opportunities such as fellowships, jobs and awards. The key to networking is to endeavour to help the other party in some way over time. When you do this, they see you as honourable and are more likely to offer you tangible experiences which have the potential to be game-changers in your life and profession.
On 24 May 2018, I presented my second webinar in collaboration with the Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings on “Optimising Your Time at Conferences: Networking Strategies to Advance Your Profession, Career and Field (Especially at Lindau!)”. Although Lindau was the focus of this webinar, I also discussed networking tactics that are applicable to any conference you will ever attend for the rest of your life. Talk about high ROI (Return on Investment)! (A video recording of the webinar will be available soon.)
- Know that everyone is there for the same reason. It helps to understand that everyone who attends Lindau (or any other conference) is there to network with everyone else. And at Lindau in particular, this goes for the laureates as well as the young scientists. I have interviewed more than a handful of Nobel Laureates who participate in Lindau year after year and have inquired why they attend and keep coming back. And over and over, their answer is the same – they want to meet and interact with other nerds, especially those who are just launching their careers. The Nobels know that networking is noble, so take a hint from them. And knowing that we all attend Lindau to network can help to ease your mind and relax. We are all in it together, and we all want to Network!
- Prepare. If you simply show up at a conference and participate in whatever events catch your fancy, you’re likely to miss the best networking opportunities. Before attending the conference, familiarise yourself with its programme. Start reading the programme now (or about a month in advance) and get to know the speakers and their backgrounds and the special events. This will help you make the most of the experience and arm you with intelligent questions to ask not only the laureates but the other young scientists as well.
- Plan ahead and make connections now. In general, it is fine to reach out to other attendees and even speakers who will be presenting at conferences. If you know you’d like to meet with fellow attendees, request appointments with them at least two to three weeks before the conference. They are busy, too, so it’s wise to get on their calendars beforehand. And even if the person you want to meet is not on the programme, it’s OK to reach out to ask if s/he will be attending, and, if so, whether her schedule would allow a short meeting. Ask for only 15 minutes, because most people attending conferences generally can’t afford to meet for a full hour for lunch, but they almost always can squeeze in a brief coffee appointment.
- Arrive early to talks and talk to those around you. Before coffee breaks are over, migrate back into the auditorium and sit near someone you don’t know. This is a great opportunity to network, especially for introverts, because there is a reason to speak with the other person: You are both here to attend the session and you can ask them if they have ever heard this presenter before. Furthermore, this networking has an expiration date and time – when the speaker begins their presentation, you have to stop talking immediately. This is a fantastic exit strategy and one that helps networking neophytes ease into networking because you can be completely certain that you won’t be stuck making conversation indefinitely.
- Tweet and use the conference app. Lindau has an especially robust and useful app that allows you to plan your schedule and get background information about the laureates and other participants (you will be notified once this year’s app is available for download). Most major conferences now use apps, and some even allow you to contact other participants through the app itself. Download the app before you leave home so you can make sure you know how to navigate it. And then once you are at Lindau, tweet away! The hashtag is #LINO18. Twitter is especially useful for conference networking because you can tweet and follow tweets with the conference hashtag. You’ll get incredibly useful insight about leaders, hot topics and popular sessions. Often, this information isn’t shared anywhere else. You’ll also discover who the trendsetters and other established leaders are in the community and get a sense for potential collaborators. You can retweet these individuals’ tweets to help establish and amplify your brand and demonstrate your dedication to the community. And by doing all of this, you’ll have a reason to contact your newfound colleagues after the conference.
- Look for “Action Nodes”. I define an action node as anything at a meeting that people can talk about, such as the queue for the food, drinks, registration and so forth. All of these nodes give you something to immediately discuss. For those who are unsure of what to say when you first meet someone, this can provide the spark.
I look forward to networking with you at Lindau and beyond!
Author’s Note: Excerpts and some of these concepts have appeared in other works by the author, including her book, Networking for Nerds (Wiley, 2015), career columns in Physics Today, Chemistry World, SPIE Professional, and NatureJobs, and other publications.