You walk out of the tech conference and glance at your watch: 8:02PM.
You’re stomach grumbles but the only food nearby is a place called Pancha Villa Taqueria serving dried-out taquitos & sweat-colored horchata that looks like it’s been brewing for years. You cringe and start walking to your hotel, only to be reminded of the dulling ache of your feet from standing in packed theaters. You’re bone-tired.
The past 5 hours felt like a complete daze… a montage of talks about Blockchain, debates about AI’s looming world domination and “martech.” Conferences can be an incredible melting pot of genius with some of the world’s most brilliant and gritty minds, but they can also can be overwhelming and gainless, especially when you set a vague goal to “network.”
But what if I told you it didn’t have to be like this? What if you could go into a conference and be a force of nature, conjuring up world-class connections while absorbing talks at brain broadband speed?
In retrospect, I would have paid for a conference game playbook telling me true, untapped hacks and tricks to meet Elon Musk or Tony Hsieh.
So we created one: The Beginners Guide To Conference Game.
Part 1 showed us how to own the most important snapshot of the experience, speaking events, how to cut through the noise and meet these high-valued speakers that are decorated entrepreneurs, investors, authors, and influencers.
If you’ve succeeded at this already, great job. If not, there are plenty of opportunities to optimize your experience at the next conference with this new addition, Part 2.
If Part 1 provided a snapshot, I hope this provides the full roll.
For Part 2, let’s begin with a couple of “mindset tips” to get you in the right head space. There are a lot of natural tendencies when going to a big event with thousands of people including clamming up, being reactive, joining cliques and tequila shots. Unfortunately, all of these play against you.
Mindset Tip #1: Commit To Getting Out Of Your Comfort Zone
As Clint Eastwood once said, “don’t expect success, prepare for it.”
This will prove to 1) be your catalyst to really own the conference and to 2) differentiate you from thousands of others.
First, prepare “evergreen” conversation starters and quality questions during your flight. When you find yourself in social situations and networking opportunities you’ll be prepared with kindling to have worthwhile conversations with both speakers and attendees.
The tone of your questions should be 1) positive, 2) original, and 3) deep diving (require some quality thought).
Second, challenge yourself to meet every person you sit next to at every speaking session you attend. Most large conferences will have hundreds of sessions; if you attend 15 sessions you’ll conveniently meet 15 to 30 people with little effort.
Third, after meeting someone, ask them a simple question: is there anyone you recommend that I should meet next?
This simple but powerful question can daisy chain you directly to the community or person-of-interest you’re looking for (especially a coveted speaker). Most attendees will have a robust network by circumstance (as founders, investors, and journalists do).
Fourth, avoid cliques. You didn’t come to this conference to hangout with your business partner or co-worker but to achieve a specific purpose (ex. make at least one valuable connection).
Instead of grabbing lunch with a friend, break away and sit at a different table to use your conversation starters and flex your network muscle.
Mindset Tip #2: Master Your Elevator Pitch
Equip yourself with a pithy, one-sentence pitch before arriving to the conference. Practice it on your significant other, the flight stewardess, your cat, anyone, and get a constant stream of feedback to chisel it to perfection.
Your one-sentence pitch will need to answer 2 questions that’ll bubble up in each person’s mind:
1) Are you important?
2) If so, what value can you offer me?
It’s natural and absolutely okay to put yourself first at conferences, especially when you’ve traveled cross-country and paid $500-$1000 to attend.
Thus, wordsmith “what you do” to sound compelling and help establish credibility; frame your work in a way to express how it solves a real, pressing problem for a customer or business. All you know, THEY could be your customer or know someone who greatly needs your product.
A Mock Scenario
Let’s pretend it’s 7:06 AM and the sun is peaking over the horizon as you wake up from a cat nap on your flight to TechCrunch Disrupt SF; you sip a coffee and think about how you’re spending 3 whole days at one of the world’s best tech conferences.
Mentally, you run through your “conference game prep”:
Questions and conversation starters? Check.
Goal to meet 30 new people? Check.
Elevator pitch polished? Check. (Your flight neighbor loved it and even exchanged cards with you).
Step #1: Create A Priority Wish List
There often are published lists of who will be at the conference, so pick out 50 speakers, participating startup booths, and/or prominent attendees and email them to setup as many one-on-one meetings as possible. This could include editors of online magazines, bloggers you follow, people who you’d consider potential customers or business partners, VCs, and even competitors.
Aim for 5 coffee meetings, ideally in the evenings when the conference has closed shop for the day.
Step #2: Offer Assistance To The Conference
Conference organizers are juggling 100 things at once, especially days prior to the event so any last-minute help they can get is greatly welcome. Either fish around for their email on the conference website or ask a more senior volunteer during registration for their contact info.
Simply say you’d like to offer a hand and deliver a tailored 1-sentence pitch. Suggest moderating a panel, flexing your network to fill last-minute speaker slots, setting up tables and chairs, or solving any last-minute fires (ideally, an area that your “super power” could be helpful in).
Even if they don’t take you up on it, it gives you a connection point that can be helpful later on.
However, the real power of offering help is that you’ll have much better access to speakers since you’re both “behind the scenes.” Not to mention, you could build a relationship with organizers and be a shoe-in to volunteer for next year’s event, a $1000 value.
Step #3: Throw An Intimate Dinner Party
Make calls to some of the hottest restaurants in San Francisco (Funky Elephant, Villon, International Smoke) and ask about the possibility of booking a private party room. This is best done weeks in advance, especially if it’s a popular eatery, but you’re bound to find one with a private room available on a weekday evening.
Second, reach out to two other attending startups and pitch them on the idea, suggesting to share the bill and “sponsor” the event.
Third, invite one “brand name” guest (that you met at your lunch meeting or connected with immediately after a speaking session).
Fourth, once you’ve gotten a confirmation from your above guest, use this as leverage to get two to three potential customers, popular bloggers, or B-list editors to attend.
Your special guest can also be used as leverage to convince the two “sponsoring” startups if they’ve had any hesitation.
And voila! You have a collection of 8-10 fascinating people ready for an intimate, memorable evening where the synergy of conversation and social networks can run wild and lead to valuable bridges in coming days or months.
As Tim Ferriss says, “you can define your success by the value of your network.”
The real value of conferences is not in the knowledge you garner but in the single connection you make to domino your way to scale and amplify a world-class product people love.
*Important Note: Mr. Eastwood doesn’t lie; the 3 steps work best when done several weeks in advance so to 1) research and email speakers, sponsors, and prominent attendees well before they arrive, 2) catch event organizers as early as possible and to 3) book a private room at your ideal, hot restaurant well in advance.