10 Ways to Rock a Conference

03/13/2015 03:20 pm ET | Updated May 13, 2015

The right conference can be a game changer for your business. More importantly, the right conference, done the right way can prove to be a goldmine of opportunities.


Whether you are going to a trade show, festival or business conference you have to be prepared. You are already spending time, money and energy to get to your event. Let me teach you some tricks of the trade.

I want you to be a conference pro.

You know the conference pros:

  • Conference pros look forward to their event because they know they will get new business from it.
  • Conference pros know exactly how to work a room and walk up to a stranger like an old friend.
  • Conference pros are a magnet for business cards because they aren't the sleazy, schmoozer types.
  • They are the people who everyone wants to sit next to at lunch.
  • Conference pros seem to effortlessly manage the schedule, land VIP coffees and kill it at after-parties.

My friend, this can be you. Let me show you how:

#1: Your Assets

Conference pros not only have the skills to rock an event, they also have an arsenal of tools at their disposal. Before you go to the event, make sure you have the following in place:

  • Your Badge: One of your most important, but overlooked assets for conferences is your badge. It is your first impression. It is your conversation starter. It is your calling card. It is your key to interactions. Before leaving, double and triple check that your name and company is spelled right in the conference system.
  • Insider Tip: If you have an opportunity to add a conversation starter to your badge, do it! For example, can you add a favorite quote? Your last vacation spot? The music you listened to on the way here? Sometimes badges allow you to add an interesting fact-never pass up an opportunity to add an interesting anecdote to your badge. It will make YOU easy to approach.
  • Your Contact: If someone wants your information you can definitely give them a business card (see below), but you also want to be able to bump or pass someone your info phone to phone. This is especially helpful if someone wants to grab drinks later. I highly recommend having Bump installed in your phone-an easy app to share your info. Sometimes people also ask you to text your info to their phone. I recommend having a professional contact for yourself in your address book that you can text someone quickly. This 'conference contact' should just have your phone number, email, website and Twitter handle. I learned this the hard way when someone asked me to text my contact info to them and I had my airline numbers and license plate in my contact notes-awkward!
  • Your Business Card: Is your business card boring? Conference pros have interesting, conversation sparking, memorable business cards because they are getting so many in the span of 3 days. Check out all of my tips for Killer Business Cards and level up yours! Among many things, I highly recommend having your picture on your business card so people remember who you are when looking at it later. Check out mine:


  • Hopefully this is obvious, but bring a TON of cards-more than you think you will ever need. Don't be the person who runs out.

#2: Pitch Perfect

Most people have one elevator pitch that they use for everything. This is a MISTAKE for conferences. You want a conference specific elevator pitch tailored to the people you are meeting. This will help you be more relevant and more memorable. How do you tailor your pitch for a conference? You have a few options. My every day elevator pitch is, "My name is Vanessa and I'm lead investigator at a human behavior research lab called the Science of People." See how I could change this for the SXSW Interactive Conference (very technology and online focused):

  • Make your pitch more niched and specific for conference attendees. "My name is Vanessa and I run a human behavior research lab that looks for patterns for how people use technology."
  • Specifically reference the conference. "My name is Vanessa and I'm at SXSW looking for ideas for my human behavior research lab."
  • Specifically reference them if you know what they do from their badge or their introduction. "My name is Vanessa and I help journalists like you find interesting human behavior research to write about."

Before you go, write out a few specific variations of your pitch for the conference. Especially if you are at a trade show behind a booth-you want your elevator pitch to also be your sales pitch for your booth. For example, when I am running a Science of People booth and doing experiments on site, my pitch is more like this: "We're a human behavior research lab running an experiment today on how fast you can solve this puzzle. Want to try it?"

#3: Offer Don't Ask

In the first few years of my business I made a colossal mistake. I thought conferences were about asking. I would sign-up for a big industry conference and write down all of my goals for the conference. Typically, get more business, get more contacts, get more business cards, get more info. These are all asks-me asking for something from someone. Not surprisingly, these conferences went terribly. I came across as spammy and needy. By accident, I discovered the power of the offer. I was invited to a trend conference as a blogger and my sole goal was to find interesting people and products to cover. In other words, I was going around offering coverage-there was no real benefit to me, I was just looking for cool people to feature and drive traffic to. This conference rocked my world. Not only did I have a ton of fun, but also I had the most interesting conversations with fascinating people. I drummed up more business than I ever could have dreamed of-I still get business from a contact I made at the conference 6 years ago. Why? I was in the offer mentality. When thinking about your event, don't think about what you need or what you want to ask for, focus only on what you can offer. How can you help people at the conference? What can you give them? What do you have to offer this conference? That's the mentality I want you to walk around with because it breeds authenticity and confidence. When we are in the ask mentality, we are in scarcity and we are in need. When we are in the offer mentality, we are in abundance and we are at ease. This is how you make connections and stay open-minded to business connections that might surprise you.

Challenge: Take the offer mentality at your next event and see the difference.

#4: The Context Come On

The art of seduction and the art of conference going are not all that different. It's hard to approach someone at a conference and avoid being creepy, sleazy or salesman-y, but it can be done! Here's the trick: CONTEXT. I never, ever approach someone cold at an event. If you can do this, more power to you, but I find it extremely difficult to do the cold-approach. I want you to be the master of the context come on. The context come on is when you use your location or surroundings to make an opening line and conversation easy. I make all of my conference contacts in context. I look for lines at conferences because it is the easiest way to meet the person in front and behind you. I also never pass up the opportunity to get to a session 5 minutes early and sit at a partially full table or block of seats with people-don't pick the empty table or the row of empty seats! You are missing the best networking opportunity if you don't sit or stand next to someone. Most people think that networking happens during the scheduled 'networking breaks' or 'after-parties,' but I think that the best networking happens when most people don't expect it. Here are my favorite contexts and come ons:

  • Lunch Table: "Enjoying the conference so far?"
  • Coffee Line: "Juicing up for the big keynote?"
  • Bathroom Line: "How are you liking today's sessions?"
  • Seat mate: "What brings you to this session?"
  • Badge Line / Gift Bag Line: "Come to a lot of conferences like this?"
  • Elevator/Escalator: "Been to this conference before?"

Let me tell you a story about how I accidentally learned the art of the Context Come On:

When I first started my business 9 years ago there was a conference I was DESPERATE to attend. But it was way, way, way out of my budget. However, I knew that meeting the people at this conference could be totally game changing for my business. I couldn't afford to buy a ticket for the conference so I figured there had to be another way to get access. I thought, what does everyone at a conference need? Coffee. I saw that there was a Starbucks in the conference hotel. And I did have enough budget to fly to the city and stay in a cheap motel near the airport. So that is exactly what I did. The morning of the conference, I took the bus to the conference hotel and set-up shop at the Starbucks. I bought a coffee and gave the Baristas a $20 tip and then waited.

As soon as I saw someone with a badge get in line for coffee I stood in line behind them. Then I would use one of the Context Come Ons above. I wanted to be extremely transparent so once we would get to talking about the conference, I would tell them that I really wanted to attend but couldn't afford it, so was having my own mini-conference in line and trying to network with people while they got their coffee. Every single person laughed and most told me their own story about bootstrapping or hustling. I got 72 business cards that day and bought 4 of the speakers coffee! This is aggressive, but it shows the power of context and seeing opportunity outside the typical 'networking break' and 'after party.'

Insider Tip: When all else fails, you can always use the World's Single Best Pick-Up line in any context

#5: In Like Flynn

"In Like Flynn": A slang phrase meaning having quickly or easily gained access as desired (Wikipedia)

Once you're in, you want to stay in. So, you've just used a Context Come On and it's going great. Here's how to keep the conversation going. These work whether you are standing at a booth or chatting to someone in the bathroom line. First, use conference conversation starters:

  • What did you think of the keynote?
  • Have you learned anything really interesting so far?
  • Which break-out session are you going to go to?
  • Any booths I should stop by in the Exhibition Hall?

Second, use killer conversation starters. Please DO NOT ask them what they do or where they are from. These are ridiculously boring and you are more interesting than that. Use one of our killer conversation starters, like:

  • Working on any personal passion projects?
  • What are you looking forward to for the rest of the day?
  • Working on any interesting projects these days?

#6: Out Like Scout

"Out Like Scout": A slang phrase meaning get out like a girl scout who just sold a ton of cookies (I totally made this phrase up because I wanted to rhyme like #5)

You've been having a great conversation and now it's time to wrap it up. Your last impression is just as important as your first impression. Make it count! The art of the graceful exit is all about giving someone clear exit cues. Especially if you have someone who wants to talk and talk and talk, subtlety is not going to work for you. After many years of conference going and many failed exit attempts, I have learned that the direct approach is always respectful and appreciated. I use the Exit Formula:

Genuine Compliment + Follow-Up Item + Handshake = Graceful Exit

+ When you are ready to wrap it up, give them a genuine compliment like, "It's been a pleasure talking to you." or "I loved hearing about your business idea."

+ Then cue them to the exit with a follow-up item like, "I'll follow-up with you on email." or "Hope to see you at the after-party tonight." or "Pass me your business card and I'll find you on LinkedIn."

+ The handshake is a really clear cue and will get even the most persistent person to realize that you want to make a graceful exit. Smile, stick out your hand and give a nice send off with well-wishes like, "Good luck today." or "Break a leg in your workshop." or "Safe travels."

Insider Tip: One of the benefits of using the Context Come On's is that a graceful exit is built in. For example, if you are chatting with someone in the coffee line, you have a natural exit once you both get your lattes.

#7: Know Your Limits

If you are not an extrovert, don't try to be! Even if you are an extrovert we all have limits. The worst way to do a conference is to try to do it all even when you are exhausted or out of your element. In my Master Your People Skills course I talk about locations that make you thrive and places that make you survive. Do you do better one-on-one? Then setting up coffees at conferences is going to be way more productive for you than attending a break-out session. Do you love late nights? Then host an after-party! Knowing your limits also comes to food, sleep and timing. If you are particular about food, bring your own snacks. If you aren't a morning person, think about skipping the morning session so you have more energy for the happy hour event.

You don't have to do it all.

Let me give you an example:

SXSW is a huge tech, film and music festival in Austin, Texas every year that hosts over 50,000 attendees. It is overwhelming to say the least. But it is also amazing, stimulating and fun-if you know your limits. I am speaking at SXSW 2015 and knew that I have to respect my limits. For me, I thrive in learning locations. I love workshops, keynotes, breakouts and seminars. And I feel like I barely survive at concerts, night clubs and really loud bars. So, I build my schedule around being one of the first at the conference in the morning and I don't RSVP for night events that I think will exhaust me for the next day. Another limit I discovered last year at SXSW 2014 is how monstrously big Austin is and how hard it is to get around-especially in heels--especially lugging around a laptop-especially at night, alone as a female. Last year I was only one short bus ride away from the convention center, but it was exhausting not being able to drop stuff off at the hotel and catch public transit at night. So this year I saved up to get a hotel right near the convention center. It was pricey, but I know I will enjoy the conference more.

#8: After-Parties, Networking Hour & Breaks

When the conference has networking style events or parties be sure you know my 10 Ways to Rock a Networking Event tips which will add to your arsenal of tools. I find these events great for Context Come Ons and will often spend more time chatting than in sessions-especially if I can buy the audio recordings or DVDs of the sessions I missed. If you have the opportunity to buy the content to listen to later-do it! This helps you not worry about missing anything if you get into a great conversation during lunch that runs long.

#9: Contact Management System

Hopefully you are going to be collecting A LOT of business cards. Be sure that you have a special pocket in your bag to keep other people's cards separate than yours (I have accidentally given out someone else's card before when I reached into the wrong pocket!). Getting the cards is only half of the battle. You want to nurture those contacts:

  • Set aside some time at the end of each day to write on each card what you talked about and any tidbits you want to remember.
  • I also recommend connecting with people on LinkedIn while the conference is going on. I will sit with business cards before going to bed and connect with people on LinkedIn. Why? You get to browse their profile in depth. More than a few times I have realized I wanted to circle back to a person because we had more in common than I thought and/or mutual connections.
  • Want to increase your Twitter followers? Tweet every single person you meet that it was nice meeting them. You will get activity, retweets and follows-especially if you use the event hashtag.
  • Block out time in your calendar the day after the conference to do follow-up while everything is fresh. I always set aside time after a conference to be the first to follow-up. Not only does this make you look on the ball, you also get to be the first in the door with potential contacts.
  • Special Note: You also want to block out time to transfer all of your notes into action items while it is still fresh. Don't waste all of the things you learned by letting your notes languish. The biggest overlooked part of going to a conference effectively is the day after-managing all of the notes and contacts.

#10: Tricks of the Trade

Here are a few short and sweet tips that will help you be a conference pro:

  • Look at the agenda ahead of time to get an idea of the sessions you want to prioritize. Be sure to also get a map if it is a big conference so you aren't relying on slow wi-fi connections to figure out where you are going.
  • Don't select sessions that you could practically teach yourself. Sign-up for at least one session that is completely out of your wheel house-I have had some of my best learnings in these sessions.
  • Beware of conference buddies. It is great to go to a conference with a friend or colleague BUT it is very hard to network well when you are with someone else. First, you will be approached less. Second, it's harder to use context come ons when you already have someone to talk to. If you want a conference buddy, challenge yourself to sit separately and network on your own for part of the time.
  • You're never 'off'. You will have industry colleagues, cameras and possibly bosses at the event. Beware of the free booze!
  • Use the event hashtag! If you are on Twitter you can get so many new followers by using the event hashtag. I jump on the hashtag during keynotes and workshops. I post pictures and thank you's. This gets me tons of new followers and activity.
  • If you can thank the organizers and conference planning committee, do it! They work really hard to put on events and very rarely get thanked. Who knows, you might be chosen as a speaker for next year.

#11: Your Body Language

This wouldn't be a Science of People post if we didn't mention the power of body language. Here is me power posing with Amy Cuddy last year at SXSW:


Be sure you know how to both LOOK and FEEL confident at your event.