For introverted business owners like me, taking a company to the next level often means leaving your comfort zone. In the beginning, building a business relies heavily on what you know. But as your business grows, who you know becomes more and more important.
When I first ventured into business ownership, it was in a webmaster role that required mostly online communication. But with success came the need to meet affiliates, vendors, and contractors face to face on a regular basis. I began attending conferences not only to listen and learn, but to meet and talk with as many people as possible. I had to learn to initiate conversations with strangers and turn the small talk I dreaded into meaningful connections.
While I'll never feel completely at ease in these situations, the more I networked, the less intimidating it became. Here are three hard-won tips to make the most out of your next conference -- especially if networking doesn't come naturally.
1. Start before you go.
Before you leave, take as much hassle out of the equation as possible. Map out a plan that makes you feel comfortable. For example, I don't love flying, so I minimize stress by booking direct flights whenever possible. That way, there are fewer chances of delay and only one takeoff and landing to worry about.
Similarly, where you stay matters. While it may be tempting to save money by not staying at the conference hotel, taking an elevator to a meeting instead of traveling across town during rush hour can really cut down on stress. For a recent conference in New York City, I split the difference, opting for a hotel within easy walking distance of the conference. Without complicated transportation logistics to navigate, I was able to control my schedule and save some money.
When it comes to travel, especially for business, organization is key. I recommend using travel apps to keep important information at your fingertips, and connectivity apps to make outreach and schedule management easier once you arrive.
2. Practice talking to strangers.
In the same way you can improve at anything with practice, initiating conversations with people you don't know gets easier the more you do it. Fortunately, everyday life offers plenty of opportunities to practice. This is where my grade-school-age son becomes my role model: He starts genuine conversations with everyone, from pro athletes to the person working at the theme park with relative ease. It's a skill I admire and seek to emulate in my day-to-day interactions and business networking.
As an added bonus, talking to strangers a habit builds more than just confidence. Research shows that chatting it up with strangers can have a positive impact on mood and health.
3. Prepare to execute.
When I decide to attend a conference, I go all in on preparation. I read up on the event, the speakers, and who's attending. Then, I brainstorm with my team to determine how our business will benefit and how to optimize my time at the conference. From there, it's about reaching out well in advance to schedule time with the people I need to meet.
Setting a realistic schedule and deciding who to meet (and when) is a bit of an art. I've found that lunch breaks are a good time to catch up with current partners. Typically, lunch meetings are relaxed and fairly casual -- exactly how you want conversations with partners to feel. I save dinner meetings for when there are more detailed matters to discuss. While steaks and wine make for a more formal atmosphere, dinner meetings feel less crunched for time.
At the end of a conference, everybody's goal is to walk away with relationships that will serve their businesses. You just never know which contact may spark an exciting new opportunity or an idea that you haven't considered. Put together a plan that optimizes your networking opportunities so you don't miss a thing.
Daniel Wesley founded Quote.com to provide consumers with auto insurance quotes from leading carriers. His work has been featured in Forbes, Mashable, Inc., and Fox Small Business.