How To Make Connections and Network at Your Next Professional Conference
7 minute read
My cheeks stung and each breath condensed into water vapor in the cold Albuquerque morning air.
A stream of negative thoughts flew through my mind as I waited to cross the street to get to the conference center. I questioned my own abilities and leadership as a first-year physical therapy student in the presence of the ambitious and successful attendees at the 2019 APTA National Student Conclave.
When the crosswalk light turned green, my forward motion quieted the negative thoughts and put them in the back of my mind. The fears were quickly replaced with excitement as I made my way forward. Instead of fear, I felt confidence. Confidence in my ability to travel to new places, build a network of friends and professional connections, and create opportunities for myself from these connections.
You may be asking yourself, why should I network?
You are a hard-working physical therapy student who has earned knowledge and skills through challenging days and nights spent learning in your doctorate programs. I'm here to tell you, unfortunately, that's often not enough to build the career you want. In order for your knowledge and skills to translate into opportunities outside of the walls of your program, you must expand your network.
Professional conferences are a great place to begin growing your network of PTs, PTAs, and students.
Here are my tips for students looking to expand their network.
Do your research.
Have you ever attended something because you knew that you should, but not because you necessarily wanted to? Maybe your professors or mentors are pushing you to attend a professional event. My advice is to go into it with less of an attitude screaming I have to be here, but instead come with more of an open mind.
Find out who will be attending, speaking, or presenting. Learn about people who you genuinely admire and understand their achievements, interests, and impact. This way, when you arrive you're excited to meet them and have something to talk about.
In fact, you can even take this a step further and begin engaging with individuals prior to the event. For those who are active on social media, applaud an accomplishment, ask a question about work that's engaging to them, and introduce yourself and let them know that you'd like to meet at the upcoming conference.
Preparation can go a long way in making networking at your event much smoother.
Make yourself at home.
I remember the first day of physical therapy school. I didn't know anybody, and it showed in how I spoke and presented myself. It was harder to open up and be myself, which made meeting people more difficult than it needed to be.
Fast forward to today. Chatting with my classmates, faculty, and others on campus feels as comfortable as hosting friends in my own living room. This level of comfort makes connecting with others easy.
Traveling to a new city to mingle with thousands of professionals in your field doesn't have to feel intimidating. Instead of trying to impress the people you meet, focus on being comfortable and getting the most out of your experience.
How do you get comfortable? Well, first, you need to actually be comfortable. By that I mean dress professionally, but also comfortably.
Second, I'd recommend making the first move. That's right, say hi first. I doubt that you'll encounter one person who won't say it in return. That's the great thing about our profession. We're pretty friendly by nature, so when attending a physical therapy conference don't hesitate to start a conversation and, who knows, you may meet a new friend, colleague, or mentor.
Offer value before you try to take value.
I think that we can all remember times when someone has tried to take from us without seeming to offer anything in return, including thanks and gratitude; someone who only appears in your life to ask for a favor.
Although they may have good intentions, this is a big-time social faux pas that shows a lack of awareness on the taker's part. Therefore, it's something to avoid in the context of building meaningful professional connections as well. Asking for a job, introductions, or other favors without first offering value is a big mistake.
So how can we offer value to people who we've just met? Here are three simple ways to do just that:
- Have fun.
- Offer your undivided attention.
- Create connections and introductions.
When you first meet somebody, before you've even had an opportunity to get to know them, what value can you offer? Having fun is something that even Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos would value. With an abundance of business opportunities, talent, and connections at his disposal he may value a fun, positive social interaction above all else. Again, feeling comfortable is a big factor because most people would feel too nervous around the wealthiest man on the planet to be able to relax and just have fun.
As the conversation continues, another simple way to offer value is to listen and to give your undivided attention. Unfortunately, in a world of cell phone notifications and distractions, it's rare to receive undivided attention. Try giving the person you are speaking with your ears, eye contact, and a friendly smile, and watch their enthusiasm about what they're passionate about increase.
Finally, at events where networking is a large component of it, it's mutually understood that everyone is interested in connecting with other professionals. Why not freely offer up your own connections? You can start by introducing them to the people who are with you at the conference. As you get to know them and more clearly understand their goals, the more specific you can get with the introductions you offer.
There are many ways to offer value, but this is a great starting point.
Create opportunities to meet and reconnect in the future.
After you've made some new connections, you'll want to create both short- and long-term opportunities to continue getting to know each other.
In the short-term while attending a conference, you can take advantage of the fact that people from both near and far are all in the same city. You can seize the opportunity for more face time at the conference social events like PT Pub Night and the PT PAC party, or by asking if the person wants to grab coffee.
For a more long-term strategy, you can't beat social media. I recommend Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn in that order.
Instagram offers a more personal connection. You can see and congratulate your connections on personal accomplishments like backpacking the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim, or winning that intramural sports championship game. It also offers you another way to share some moments in your life and to be remembered.
Twitter is a wonderful way to get plugged into what your connections are thinking about and most interested in professionally. It's a more professional way of connecting with your colleagues, which has its own pros and cons.
Finally, LinkedIn. Many folks who don't keep up on Instagram or Facebook still maintain a LinkedIn account for job hunting and keeping a professional online presence. So if someone doesn't have Instagram or Facebook, you can check in on LinkedIn every few months or so.
After you've met and engaged with people at the conference and traded social media to keep in touch, the last step is to leave.
It's obvious, but leaving gracefully is a mark of social intelligence. You should be polite, direct, and excuse yourself. Something along the lines of, "It was really nice chatting with you, I'm going to mingle. Hopefully, I'll see you around."
Even if you're really enjoying talking with each other, you don't want to take up all of the other person's time. You can trade contacts and offer an invitation to dinner, and excuse yourself.
A final note is that you may have noticed these tips aren't very goal oriented. And that's the whole point. You're not trying to make a sale or get a reference for a job. The idea is to enjoy meeting others for the sake of it. When you do need something, it will be much easier than to simply jump in and ask right off the bat without making that initial connection.
Now it's my chance to connect with all of you. Follow me on social media; I'd love to talk further and expand my professional network.
David Ung, SPT, is a student at Northern Arizona University. You can connect with him on Instagram @iamdavidung and Twitter @DavidUng17.