Science of People - Logo

How to Network at a Conference: 10 Ways to Make Contacts Like a Pro

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Have you ever been to a conference or trade show and felt like it wasn’t worth the effort or the time or the money?

There are so many business conferences out there, it’s important that if you are going to take the time away from work to attend a conference, you know exactly how to maximize it!

My name is Vanessa Van Edwards and I am a human behavior hacker. In our lab, Science of People, we teach you the most advanced people skills strategies to get the most out of your professional relationships. Today, we are tackling conferences.

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

I want you to be a conference pro. You know the conference pros:

  • Pros look forward to their event because they are certain they will get new business from it.
  • Pros know exactly how to work a room and walk up to a stranger like an old friend.
  • 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.
  • 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:

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 often 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 correctly in the conference system. This way you won’t show up and discover a mistake. You also might consider bringing your own badge, lanyard or pins to add. It’s easy to strike up a conversation with someone who has added something interesting to the boring traditional badge.

Insider Tip: If you have an opportunity to add a conversation starter to your badge, do it! For example, you can write your favorite quote on the back of your badge so if it flips over, there is still something interesting there. You can add a conversation starter below your name. Sometimes badges allow you to add an interesting fact–never pass up an opportunity to add an additional element to your badge. It will make YOU easier to approach.

  • Your Contact: If someone wants your information, you definitely can give them a business card (we’ll talk more about this next), 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 a professional contact for yourself in your address book that you can text someone quickly. This ‘conference contact’ should  have just your phone number, email, website and maybe social media info, such as your Twitter or Instagram 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! Have a professional contact for yourself all set up. You might also want to have one of these apps installed on your phone to easily bump your information to someone.
  • Your Business Card: Hopefully this is obvious, but bring a TON of cards–more than you ever think you will need. Don’t be that person who runs out and needs to use a napkin instead.

One other big thing to think about with your business card as an asset. Be honest: Is your business card boring? Conference pros have interesting, conversation-sparking, memorable business cards because they are getting so many at once. If you can, I highly recommend having your picture on your business card, so people remember who you are when looking at it later. Check out mine:

It has my picture as well as a reference to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, which always gets conversations going. I have five other ideas for making your business card awesome–be sure to check them out if you need more ideas!

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.”

However, I change this up for different kinds of conferences. You want to make it more niched and specific for conference attendees. For example, I have spoken at the SXSW Interactive Conference, which is very technology focused:

  • For this conference I could say: “My name is Vanessa and I run a human behavior research lab. We look for patterns for how people use technology.”
  • Or I could say why I am attending the specific conference: “My name is Vanessa and I’m at SXSW looking for article ideas for my human behavior research lab.”
  • If you really want to be a conference pro, you can specifically reference them if you know what they do from their badge or their introduction. I might say, “My name is Vanessa, and I help journalists like you find interesting human behavior research to write about.”

Before you arrive at your conference, write out a few specific variations of your pitch. Especially if you are at a trade show behind a booth. You want your elevator pitch also to 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?”

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, they were 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 finding interesting people and products to cover. In other words, I was going around offering coverage–there was no real benefit to me, I just was 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 that conference eight 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 the people you meet? 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 feel more confident.

This is how you make lasting connections and stay open-minded to potential business contacts that might surprise you.

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 five 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. When you sit down at a table, you can ask an easy context come on, “What made you sign up for this session?” or “How’s the lunch?” or simply, “What brings you here?”

Most people think that networking happens during the scheduled ‘networking breaks’ or ‘after-parties,’ but I think 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?”
  • Seatmate: “What brings you to this session?”
  • Badge Line or the 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 nine 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 game-changing for my business. I couldn’t afford to buy a ticket for the conference, but I knew 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 in my 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 in the Starbucks downstairs. 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, I 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 coffee for four of the speakers, which led to some incredible opportunities later! This tactic was a bit aggressive, but it taught me the power of context and seeing opportunity outside the typical ‘networking break’ or ‘after party.’

Get In and Stay In

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 tips work whether you are standing at a booth or chatting with someone in the bathroom line. First, use conference-specific conversation starters, such as:

  • 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. Once you have had some casual chit chat, use one of our killer conversation starters, such as:

  • “Worked on anything exciting recently?” This is a better way to ask someone what they do.
  • “What are you looking forward to the rest of the day?” This is better than asking someone “How are you?”
  • “Who is the most interesting person you have met here?” This is a great way to build your network.

Know Your Exit Cues

Okay, so 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 lasting impression 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 the direct approach is always respectful and appreciated. I created this Exit Formula:

Genuine Compliment + Follow-up Item + Handshake = Lasting Impression

First, when you are ready to wrap it up, give them a genuine compliment, such as, “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, such as, “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.”

Finally, the handshake is a really clear cue and will get even the most persistent person to realize that you want to make a lasting impression. Smile, stick out your hand and give a nice send-off with well wishes, such as, “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 is that a lasting impression 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.

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 doing it all, even when you’re exhausted or out of your element. In my book Captivate, 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 applies 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.

Here’s the bottom line: 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, the conference hosts more than 50,000 attendees. It is overwhelming to say the least, but it is also amazing, stimulating and fun–if you know your limits.

I spoke at SXSW 2015 and knew that I would have to set some limits for myself. For me, I thrive in learning locations. I love workshops, keynotes, breakouts and seminars. And I feel like I barely survive at after-parties, concerts, 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 any night events that I think will exhaust me for the next day. Another limit I discovered 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.

My first year, I was only one short bus ride away from the convention center, but it was exhausting not being able to drop off stuff at the hotel and then having to catch public transit at night. So in recent years, I saved up enough money to get a hotel right near the convention center. It was pricey, but I get WAY more out of the time spent at the conference itself as opposed to commuting.


Maximizing a conference doesn’t just happen at the conference.

About a week before the conference, you should try to connect with speakers, VIPs or special attendees. I went to a great conference last year called Two12. I knew there would be lots of VIPs in attendance since it was an invite-only event. Instead of waiting to pounce on a VIP after their panel, I decided to reach out ahead of time on social media. For example, I saw the editor of my favorite magazine, Entrepreneur, Jason Feifer was attending. I tweeted him ahead of time telling him I also was headed to the conference and was excited to meet him. Then the first day at breakfast, he recognized me from my tweet. We sat together, became friends and he ended up bringing me on as a columnist for Entrepreneur. Dream. Come. True.

Another pre-conference tip applies during travel. Your event begins the moment you begin traveling. Most people think they don’t have to be ready until the morning of the first day of a conference. However, you can do some amazing networking on buses, planes and trains on the way to the event. You likely you can meet people from your home city on the way to a conference you both are attending. When I was on my way to CES one year, I made the most amazing connection on the plane on the way there. Remember:

  • Put business cards in your carry-on.
  • Be ready for your elevator pitch or context come on the moment you leave the house.
  • Taxi lines are GOLD. If you are traveling to a city and have to take a taxi to the hotel, talk to the people in the taxi line. If they are going to the conference, you already have made a friend before it even starts. I have shared cab rides into the city with speakers and event sponsors!

Insider Tip: Sometimes conferences allow you to buy DVDs or digital recordings of the sessions. If you can—do it! I find that sometimes my context come ons work so well I miss parts of sessions. This is great, because it’s better to take advantage of talking to someone in person. If you have the opportunity to buy the content to listen to later, I recommend doing it! This helps you avoid worrying about missing anything if you get into a great conversation during lunch that runs long or if a VIP asks for a last minute coffee.

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 from yours. (I have accidentally given out someone else’s card when I reached into the wrong pocket!) Typically, I like to keep my cards in my badge so I can reach in easily and grab them, and I put other people’s cards in my back pocket or conference bag.

Now, getting the cards is only half of the battle. You want to nurture the contacts you make:

  • 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 some mutual connections.
  • Want to increase your Twitter followers? Tweet every single person you meet to say 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.

Insider Tip: You also want to block out time to transfer all of your notes into action items while they still are fresh. Don’t waste all of the things you learned in conference sessions by letting your notes languish. The most often overlooked part of going to a conference effectively is the day after–make time to manage all of the notes and contacts you get.

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. Also be sure to 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 practically could teach yourself. Sign up for at least one session that is completely out of your wheelhouse–I have experienced some of my best learning in these random sessions.
  • Beware of conference buddies. It’s great to go to a conference with a friend or colleague BUT it can make it very hard to network well when you are with someone you already know. First, you will be approached less often. 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 and don’t get too sloppy! No one likes to see their new colleague dance on a table. Believe me, I know.
  • 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.

Want all these tips in one place? Download our Conference Checklist:

Attending a Conference Checklist

Those are all of my favorite conference tips. I hope they help you rock your next event. Do you know someone who has a conference coming up? Please send this video to them so they can maximize it too. Thanks for reading!

12 thoughts on “How to Network at a Conference: 10 Ways to Make Contacts Like a Pro”

  1. Excellent article. I learned a lot from this. I would like more of those audio clips, it helps break up the reading, as do the videos. Thank for all the advice 🙂 p.s. ‘out like a scout’ is a phrase we use in Ireland, too.

  2. Danielle McRae

    Great tips, Vanessa. I especially love, “know your limits”. At a conference or big event, it’s easy to get sucked into everything going on without giving yourself time to breathe and regroup. I’ll definitely be using all of this advice at my next big event!

  3. These are all wonderful tips!! I especially love the CMS ‘Contact Management System’ Rule. I use to work for a conference, and would hear how easy it is to get overwhelmed by the content, that one would forget to follow-up on a contact or even connect with others at the event.

  4. I believe follow-ups are without a doubt one of the most important things you can do at a conference so thank you for the advice on doing it right after the end of the day!

  5. “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.” This is useful for all business cards, I have so many already I don’t remember.

  6. Good stuff! These tips would definitely come in handy to business people, especially those in sales I think.

  7. Lauren Freeman

    These are such great tips! I’ve personally never been to a conference before, but I have a feeling I’ll be attending some in my near future! Knowing these will help me feel more prepared and confident going into the event, rather than feeling panicked or overwhelmed!

  8. Drishti Narang

    “know your limits” was such a useful note because many of us try to be what we are not, and it backfires.

  9. Nikki Thornton

    This advice is like gold dust! Every single one is useful and can be utilized. I really loved the story of the conference Vanessa could not afford so created her own mini one in Starbucks! Now that is clever!

  10. Nikki Thornton

    This is one of my all time favourite SoP articles! The information given is invaluable to increasing your street cred. The personal touches weaved through out the article is just awesome, such as the coffee shop story when Vanessa couldn’t afford the conference, now that’s ingenious! I know I will still be referring to these articles in years to come for guidance.

  11. In Like Flynn, Out Like Scout, awesome phrases! Know your limits is also simple but great advice. Offer mentality is also an awesome thing. My mentor likes to say “You go first.”
    I believe that many people have heard those things before, but practice is something they’re missing on. Hope I won’t be like that. Thanks for the article, Vanessa.

  12. Omgsh I was amazed by Vanessa’s story. It is so incredible on how she created her own opportunities. It really does make you think on what you can accomplish if you just try and put all of your effort. Thank you for your tips Vanessa!

Comments are closed.

How to Deal with Difficult People at Work

Do you have a difficult boss? Colleague? Client? Learn how to transform your difficult relationship.
I’ll show you my science-based approach to building a strong, productive relationship with even the most difficult people.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Get our latest insights and advice delivered to your inbox.

It’s a privilege to be in your inbox. We promise only to send the good stuff.

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.