Conference Season Is Upon Us: Top tips for anyone who struggles with networking

Firstly apologies, this post was supposed to go up before ECCMID as I was hoping it would help others attending. Work was just too full on and I didn’t have the headspace to get it written. As there are still a lot of events yet to come I’m hoping it will still prove useful however.

We all know how very important networking is, especially at conferences. So much of a career that makes a difference in science is based on who you know and who you collaborate with. The problem is making those connections and getting to know people, especially in the early part of your career, often requires taking the plunge and being the one to open a conversion with someone you’ve never met.

I have an amazing friend called Diane who is a wonder to behold in these setting. She happily goes up to talk to people who she’s never met and just starts talking to them with great enthusiasm. Shes fearless and draws the best out of those she engages with. If you are a Diane you probably need read no further. For me however, there is little worse than that moment when you enter a room at a meeting/event, get your cup of tea and survey the 100s of people before you. In this moment you know that really now is the time, you HAVE to find someone to talk to. How do you choose who? What on earth do you say that means you don’t come across as an idiot? The very thought of it gives me palpitations. So here are some things I’ve learnt that take some of the stress out of networking at conferences.

Find an in

There are some moments and set ups at conferences when it is easier to start a conversation than others. There is always the chance that the person next to you in an interesting session will strike up a conversation to help them process what they’ve heard but in general they will be doing the same as you, ducking into and out of sessions that trigger their fancy, meaning they will be you focused on what comes next not starting a chat.

I find however there are two key moments when people are available for the cold start up conversation.

The first is at food breaks/receptions. During these moments there will be people who are there solo and also looking to develop their networks. I find the best thing to do in these situations is to get there early. There are always a limited number of tables where people can put down drinks, if you can find one and hold a place then people will effectively come to you. If this fails and there are no tables, just being close to the source of the refreshments often does the same job. Food and drink are great removers of hierarchy and being somewhere visible means that those in a similar position to you will be able to see you and hopefully will head your way. Worst case you make some small talk to the group that comes to your table and you can politely extricate yourself if it all feels too weird by saying you’re popping to get another drink.

The other place where people will be desperate to speak to you is during poster sessions. So many people will be waiting at their posters for an hour in the desperate hope that someone will come and show an interest. This is often a great time to make connections/exchange contact details (see NB below) If you scope out the listing you will know you are speaking to people who are interested in the same kind of work as you. This can shortcut some of the small talk you might otherwise need to make. It also enables you to know whether you are making a connection with a peer or whether you are connecting with a potential mentor/future employer.

The other thing to think about prior to these conversations is what you can offer, what is your unique selling point?

  • Knowledge (technique, setting or organism)
  • Access (organism, patients, research equipment)
  • Support (mentorship, peer-peer)
  • Collaboration (shared goals, shared research, shared implementation)

NB one of my biggest tips for all of these situations is to make sure you have some business cards printed – even if you print them yourself – this means that you can have something easy to hand out or pin to posters if you want authors to get in touch

Find your tribe

Anyone who reads this blog regularly will know that I’m a bit of a twitterholic (@girlymicro if we haven’t met). One of the many reasons that I’ve stuck with twitter since I initially signed up is that it has transformed my networking experiences. Twitter has offered me a way to circumvent the cold start up conversation by allowing me to find my tribe.

These days every conference/meeting has a hashtag. By following this hashtag you can find people who are interested in the same things as you, people who are in the same sessions or who even have shared connections. In many ways its an improved version of doing the poster walk.  Not only does this give you a conversational in but also by tweeting yourself linked to the thread before you ever meet in person it allows you to have a low stakes initial introduction.

One of the things I also love about twitter is it enables me to find and arrange to meet up with people who I primarily know online in order to strengthen my networks by getting to know each other better. It also gives me the chance to arrange collaboration events, like podcast recordings, when we just happen to be in the same place for a limited time.  Both of these can obviously be done by email but can be much easier to arrange when at an event when you suddenly have half an hour free. Especially at big conferences you could wander the halls for 4 days and not meet anyone you know, this way you can make the most of every second.

Take a study buddy

I absorb my learning best when I have someone to talk through my thoughts with. I have a couple of trusted study buddies that I will by preference attend events with. These guys help me get the most out of any event by:

  • Encouraging me to be braver – ask those questions I might talk myself out of, talk to that person that I should really try to connect with
  • Providing me with a sounding board for ideas when I’m in the moment
  • Enabling us to divide and conquer – there are often multiple sessions I want to be in at the same time, this way we can split up and meet at whichever session is actually proving most appropriate
  • Knowing me well enough to give me space when I need down time to re-energise
  • Crucially for me they are also there so I can feel safe from a health perspective if I have issues. They’ve helped me manage severe reactions, broken limbs etc and I trust them to get me where I need to be and give healthcare workers the right info if I need care

Mel and Lena have been my colleagues for years and they can not only get me out of a shame spiral if I do something stupid but also, by having them available to have conversations all together with new collaborators, we can make much more rapid progress on projects from the very start.

One of the other great things about going with a great study buddy is that you can also achieve other goals whilst at the conference. You can start to get papers drafted, do that research return or catch up about PhD students. If you do have supervision responsibilities whilst you’re away, as you have trainees with you, you can also share the load in terms of ensuring you have downtime. A lot of my most creative breakthroughs have happened with these guys whilst we’ve been away, surrounded both by new science and the time to reflect on how we could encorporate new thinking into our work.

Do some pre-work

I can get really insecure when going to high stakes meetings, like some of the ones I’ve been to at the House of Commons. I never really feel like I fit in and I have been known to hide in the bathrooms there until 5 minutes prior to an event start so I don’t have to face the ‘meet a stranger’ chit chat. In recent years I’ve learnt the value of doing some pre-work ahead of these meetings. This has taken different forms:

  • Reaching out on social media to see if any of my connections are attending
  • Approaching a professional body, especially if I’m on their guestlist, to find out who else they are sending so I can pre-arrange meeting at the session
  • Researching the event to look at speakers and attendance list (if available) so I can pre plan who I might want to speak to and what I could start a conversation with

In these events part of the value is in expanding your network and so really thinking about why you are going and what you hope to achieve is really worth it. Then you can match your elevator pitch (who you are, what you do and what you can offer) to your goals to help you achieve them.

Become the person others come to speak to

One of the things that has become lovely in recent years is that I’ve realised if you are presenting/organising/chairing people come to speak to you. This removes a whole lot of the stress of networking. As I mentioned above, people will often come to you even when you are presenting posters. Its always worth submitting work therefore to events you are attending, not only to get feedback on get science, but also to support you in developing your networks.

Even if you are not in a position to submit work then you should think about offering to support the organisation of events. Meetings are frequently looking for individuals who are happy to support the event organisation, both ahead of time and to do things like man the desks during the event itself. This will mean that you get to know other people who are supporting event delivery with you and give you an opportunity to network with delegates and speakers in a supported way. These connections can be transformative in terms of giving you further opportunities down the line.

Know your self and your limits

Most people assume I’m an extrovert when they meet me and I definitely have a lot of those traits. The things is, I can only manage networking for a fixed period of time. I’m good for a couple of meetings but then I need to retreat back into my bathroom office and answer some emails, otherwise I just feel progressively drained. The older I get the more I need my own space. This is usually fine but presents a real problem at places like conferences where I may need to be in full on extrovert mode for 16 hours a day. I find it exhausting.

One of the things that I’ve discovered about networking is that I therefore have to schedule it in a way that works for me. I can’t agree to go to lots of dinners on top of full day events, either from a health or a social resource point of view. I therefore pick the moments that work best for me and don’t over commit. This does mean I sometimes worry about missing out and not making the most of every opportunity but it also means that I put myself and my wellbeing first. It means that I don’t leave a conference unable to engage with work when I get back as I’ve already used up all my resources. Therefore my top piece of advice is to understand that networking is key but find a way to do it that works for you. Pick your key moments and do them well, rather than trying to be all things to all people.

All opinions on this blog are my own

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