How to Network at a Conference Without Being Annoying

Fall is here, and that means three things: scarves, pumpkin-spiced everything, and going to conferences.

If you’re like most business leaders, you’ve already got plans to attend at least one conference in your industry in the next few months. You love the inspiration, the new trends, the practical advice, and all that swag.

But in my experience, the most valuable thing I get at conferences isn’t any of that. It’s the relationships. Some of our most enduring and fruitful partnerships started with a random “hello” at a conference mixer.

Of course, we’ve all had to endure Super Annoying Business Card Guy who sleazes his way around the mixer promoting himself and making bad jokes. You don’t want to be that dude.

So here are five strategies to help you improve your networking in a way that’s natural and authentic — and maximize the relational potential at any conference you attend this fall.

Nail your one-liner

Small talk at conferences almost always begins with the question, “So, what do you do?”

Make sure you’ve got a dialed-in answer by developing a one-liner.

We’ve talked before on the blog about the power of a well crafted one-liner, but in case you missed it, the idea is simple.

A one-liner conveys what you do in a compelling way that gets people interested in how you can help them.

You start by defining a problem your customers have. Then, you show how your product solves that problem. Finally, you explain how life gets better as a result.

Here’s an example:

Guy at mixer: So, what do you do?

You: You know how hard it is to make a healthy dinner every weeknight with all the stuff your kids have going on? Well, our company delivers homemade frozen dinners that are actually affordable, so parents can relax and enjoy time with their families at night.

Why does this structure work so well?

It’s essentially a mini-story. There’s a problem to be overcome, a plan to overcome it, and a happy ending. This story-driven sentence instantly captures people’s attention, because our brains are hardwired to tune in to stories.

And at a conference setting, that’s a massive advantage. You could have just said, “I own a meal delivery service,” but then you’d bore your new friend.

With a one-liner, this guy becomes a potential new customer the moment he identifies with the problem you stated: “Yeah, dinner is always crazy for us, especially during soccer season.”

Developing a one-liner is one of the best things you can do to prepare for a conference — and for your business in general.

Ask questions

Before we go much further, I should say that none of these tips will help you if you don’t approach networking with a genuine desire to connect with people.

None of these tips will help you if you don’t approach networking with a genuine desire to connect with people.

We can smell a phony a mile away, and pure self-promotion will always backfire on you. As John Maxwell said, “People may hear your words, but they feel your attitude.”

So make sure you’re stepping into every mixer and cocktail hour with a relational posture.

One of the easiest ways to do this is simply to ask questions. Like in any relationship, asking questions builds rapport by showing our genuine interest in another person.

Go beyond the typical “How are you?” or “Where are you from? questions. They’re conversational dead ends.

Instead, ask questions that solicit stories. You’ll get more interesting answers and have a memorable conversation. For example, you might ask:

Ask questions that solicit stories. You’ll get more interesting answers and have a memorable conversation.

  • • What was the most interesting thing you learned in that last session?
  • • What’s the most exciting thing happening at your company right now?
  • • How did you end up in your line of work?
  • • What are you looking forward to this week?
  • • What surprises people most about where you’re from?

Above all, listen to the answers people give. When someone else is talking, we’re often preoccupied with how we’re going to respond or how to steer the conversation. By being present, you’ll end up forming a more genuine connection.

Give something away

As humans, we have a natural tendency to give something back whenever we receive a gift.

Psychologists call this the Principle of Reciprocity, and it’s a basic aspect of human relationships.

They theorize it happens because we don’t want to feel indebted to another person. So by returning a favor of some kind, we’ve “balanced the scales” in the relationship.

It also quickly creates a mutual trust between people, which is why it’s a helpful tactic to use when you’re at a conference.

Think of a small gift you can easily offer people you meet and connect with. It could be as simple as gum or mints. Or it might be related to your business — a free sample or free trial. It could even be a compliment, so long as it’s genuine.

Whatever you offer, do it without the expectation that the other person will offer something in return. That spirit of generosity is key to making sure your offer comes across as genuine helpfulness instead of salesmanship.

Take care of yourself

Effective networking requires you to show a genuine care for others. And that is hard to do if you don’t take care of yourself.

Effective networking requires you to show a genuine care for others. And that is hard to do if you don’t take care of yourself.

After travel, sleep disruptions, and long hours, conference life can catch up to you quickly.

Plus, if you’re naturally introverted, you’ll find yourself depleted simply from the constant interaction with others.

Make sure you prioritize self-care. Drink lots of water. Pack healthy snacks. Pay the extra bucks to get your own hotel room instead of sharing with a colleague. Pick and choose your late-night festivities so you don’t miss out on too much sleep.

And if you need to recharge, do it, even if it means skipping a session or two. What you gain in energy will more than make up for whatever you missed out on in the content.

Follow up intentionally afterward

You’ll likely have over a hundred interactions over the course of your conference. But a few conversations will stand out, either because of the business potential or simply the personal chemistry.

Those are the relationships to focus on after the conference is over. It’s easier than ever to follow people on social media and build relationships there. Follow your new friends and interact with their posts, especially in the weeks afterward.

But don’t forget about email. It’s personal and direct, and you’ll have the space to express yourself. Send a thank-you note after the conference, perhaps with a link to an article you referenced in a conversation. Or send a free copy of your lead generating PDF (if you have one), and personalize the email with a quick note about why it will help them.

Business is ultimately all about relationships, and conferences are no exception. The content will be great. You’ll have a lot of fun. But none of it matters more than the people you meet. They have the greatest and most enduring potential to grow your business — and I hope these tips help you tap into those possibilities.

Come to a StoryBrand Workshop This Fall!

Sit with other business leaders like you as we work together to clarify your message. You’ll walk away with a plan to create marketing that actually works.


Subscribe to the Building a Story Brand Podcast