On my mind today is the upcoming Legal Marketing Association’s Annual Conference – I’ll be heading to Orlando for it during the first week of April, and I can’t wait to get some valuable nuggets from the sessions, network my tail off, and come away more inspired than when I arrive. Since there is a flurry of emails and conversations happening about setting up various events and meetings while we’re at the conference, it’s at the forefront of my mind, and that’s what our Two for Tuesdays is going to focus on today as well!
Tip One: Join Something
The first few years I attended the LMA conference, I was on the outer fringes. I’m an introvert by nature, and a conference attended by over a thousand people is a little more than intimidating to me. So I attended the sessions, forced myself to sit at tables at lunches, and then spent the rest of the time hiding in my room – both during the "networking" breaks and the evening hours.
Fast forward several years, and I now find it hard to fit in all of the things I have to do! I’m almost never in my room – I leave before breakfast in the morning and only return for a quick change until the wee hours of the night. The difference is that I’m a PART of the organization now. And that inclusion happened for a few different reasons:
- Social Media: Social media was the main thing that connected me at the conferences. I talked about it in detail in a previous Two for Tuesdays, so I won’t delve into it too much here. But I do want to mention how it was helpful – I connected with people in the industry that I’d never met before, in a way that wasn’t as intimidating as walking up to someone I’d never met in person – it’s much more acceptable to reach out on Twitter or LinkedIn and say hello, and also to "listen" for a little while using those tools to see who the real influencers are.
I was really, really lucky to meet and get to know Nancy Myrland (@nancymyrland) in the early days of Twitter – not just because she’s one of the nicest and kindest people you’ll ever meet, and a very dear friend, but also because Nancy is one of the best online and in-person networkers you’ll ever meet. She knows EVERYONE, so she’s always saying hello to people and introducing those she’s with to them. Through her, I’ve gotten to know a lot of people in the organization, and it’s brought me deeper into the group than ever before.
It’s not that I looked at who I wanted to meet in a strategic fashion, so that I could get an "in" with the right people – I just networked with the people I liked, first online, and then in person. And it turns out that the people who are nice AND who are good networkers are also those "in the know" in the organization. So take a look at my tips for "joining" in on the social media around a conference.
- Committees/Sub-Groups: Committees and sub-groups of an organization are an excellent way to get more involved – you’re talking to people throughout the year, who you can then meet in person at a conference, either by setting up a meeting or attending the official functions that are normally scheduled.
The LMA is great for this – we’re a large organization, so there’s always a lot to do. You can serve at the chapter level on various committees, which will help you get to know people in your local area very quickly. Then, if you’re nervous about who to meet at a conference, you already know a few people and you can head first to the hosted chapter events there.
You can also serve at the national level on various committees. I’m on the Social Media Shared Interest Group leadership committee and the Technology Committee – through these two committees, not only am I getting to give back to the organization, but I get to know my fellow committee members on a regular basis throughout the year, I get to meet and network with them at lunches and socials at the conference, and I get to reach out to other members in the organization with my participation as well.
I also served as a Your Honor Awards judge this year, and this was an incredible opportunity – I was exposed to some of the best work that the marketers in our industry are doing, which was inspiring and a challenge to me to up my game. And my fellow judges are some of the most thoughtful and intelligent people in the industry – the conversations we had surrounding the entries were in-depth, thought-provoking and incredibly valuable. Being locked in an office with them for a weekend in January was a great way to get to know some new people, and definitely added value to my experience of the LMA.
The key here is to start small – if you narrow down your focus a bit, you can easily meet more people in a less intimidating way. Many organizations offer committees, local events, practice specific gatherings, etc., which will allow you to get to know people with similar interests. And then once you’ve met a few people you like, it will be much easier to network with and through them. Each conference that you attend will then seem less and less intimidating.
Tip Two: Stay Out of Your Room
As I mentioned earlier, I was the queen of this my first few years at the LMA conferences – I was just too intimidated. It was enough work to force myself to go to the sessions and introduce myself to people at lunch; I just didn’t have it in me the rest of the time.
But that’s a huge mistake.
As we’ve talked about here before, while the educational programming of an organization is essential (especially if it’s something you’re getting CLE credits for!), the real gems of attending a conference are the networking opportunities – that’s where you’re developing the relationships that will help you to grow, stay inspired, learn and create a posse of people that you can rely on when you need guidance.
So, although it’s nerve-wracking, try to stay out of your room when you’re at a conference:
- Never eat alone: It can be tempting to get some alone time when you’re dealing with a jam-packed schedule, but don’t dine alone while you’re at a conference. Introduce yourself to a table of people at a networking lunch. Reach out on Twitter to see who else is around to meet for dinner. Connect beforehand with a colleague or service provider you haven’t met before. Check your LinkedIn connections to see who might live in the city you’re in – it doesn’t even have to be someone attending the conference. Take a look at the hosted/sponsored events that might be a good fit. Just make sure you’re always eating with someone else.
- Wear your conference badge: Sure, it’s weird that people can come up to you and already know who you are, and it can be embarrassing to walk the streets of a city, only to realize that you’ve been wearing your lanyard all day. But it’s an identifying feature that links you with the other attendees – and that can lead to networking opportunities. I’ve chatted with people in elevators going up to my room about what’s happening that afternoon or what sessions we’ve been attending. If someone knows me by name, but not my face, they can come up to me and introduce themselves. A name badge is like a permission slip to network – it lets people know that you share something in common, and you’re willing to chat with them.
- Don’t skip networking breaks: I used to do this too – at the LMA conferences, they give us 45 minute networking breaks periodically during the day, so that we can visit the exhibit halls and meet other people. Don’t skip these – head over to the coffee station (if you don’t drink coffee, there are always other drinks). There will be people there getting their coffee, and you can introduce yourself to them – ask them which session they were just in, or where they’re headed next. If you’re headed to the same place, offer to walk over with them, and chat a little bit. Of course, not everyone you meet is going to be a good contact, or will become a friend, but each connection is valuable, and will help you practice for the ones that are really important.
I’m really excited about this year’s conference – and I used to dread them. I’ve left some slots open so that I can be flexible about making plans, while others I have reserved for committee lunches or receptions, meeting with fellow ILN marketers, and more. Because of that, I come away from each conference with more than just the knowledge I gain from sitting in the sessions – I’m inspired with new ideas, I’ve met new people and reinforced existing relationships, and I’m feeling refreshed about my work. That’s invaluable.
Through the years, as I’ve talked with conference attendees, I’ve found that the ones who tell me that the conference wasn’t valuable for them are the ones who didn’t take advantage of all the networking opportunities there. They looked only for the educational benefits, and if something didn’t fit with their exact needs, they discounted it (see also my thoughts about how we need to learn how to apply things outside of our industry to our own experiences). There is more to a conference than the content – a conference is what you make of it. So choose the right sessions (don’t be afraid to switch sessions if one isn’t delivering for you), make the most of all of the networking opportunities, and go with a positive attitude.
And here’s a bonus tip – add an extra day. Because conferences can be so crazy, it can be useful to add an extra day to spend time with your existing connections – that way, you feel free to meet new people and do the networking you need to do during the conference, because you know you’re getting the time to meet and have fun with your friends during the extra day.
I’d also like to add a couple of must-reads for conference goers here as well:
- The Legal Shakeup: Making the Most of your Conference Experience, from my friend Laura Toledo (@lalaland999)
- The Legal Watercooler: Me, Twitter, LMA and Laura Gutierrez, from my friend Heather Morse (@heather_morse)
As always, feel free to add your suggestions for attending conferences in the comments below!