You’ve been there before. You are standing in the enormous foyer of the downtown hotel. It’s check-in time on the first day of an academic conference. Jet-lagged professors perk up when they see their old friends. Back slaps and hugs abound. Circles begin to form around the tiny tables. Wine and hors-d’oeuvres are devoured. Stories are told, punctuated by loud laughter.
Except for you. You do not know anybody there. You are alone in a corner, doing your best not to look too awkward. Occasionally you walk laps around the foyer to break things up.
You do not know how to introduce yourself. Do you linger at the periphery of a group of 3-4 and try to awkwardly interject so that you can join the conversation? Do you target an individual and attempt to accost them when they break for the bathroom? Or – in the case of guys – do you go for the pièce de résistance of awkwardness and introduce yourself while standing next to them at a urinal?
I had this experience a few years ago (not the urinal part, but the not knowing anybody part) when I attended the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association. During those three days, thousands of specialists descended on Denver’s downtown convention center, shuffling between panels. I did my best to strike up conversations with other historians, using my 30-second elevator pitch about my research. I hoped for glimmers of interest. The majority’s eyes glazed over before I could finish. They entertained me for a few minutes before heading to another panel or catching up with somebody they recognized.
Flash forward to this month. I was preparing for a regional conference and realized I needed a better strategy. I think I’ve found it. The best way to make a splash at these events when you know nobody is a counterintuitive move. Here it is: Make connections with people before the conference even begins. Then you follow up with them at the actual conference.
The Key to Conference Networking: Starting Before the Conference Begins
Here’s how I did it. First I pored over the program that was emailed to me a week before the conference began. In it, every panel, talk, and attendee’s contact information was listed. Then I made an excel spreadsheet of every person who I would be interested in learning more about their research. It was a simple document with four columns: their name, institution, title of their talk, and email address.
Then I sent out 60 personalized emails. I only contacted those that I wanted to speak with; I didn’t spam the whole contact list. The content changed with each message, but they each went something like this:
I hope you are doing well. My name is Scott Rank and I am a postdoc in Ottoman studies at Sehir University. I saw your paper topic in the conference bulletin and thought it looked quite interesting.
Unfortunately, I am not sure if I will be able to attend your panel. I would still love to learn about the topic. If it is not a problem, could you send your talk or paper to me?
Notice what I am not doing here. I am not beginning with a perfunctory “I hope you are doing well” sentence, then launching into 3 paragraphs about how great my research is and why they should be watching my rising academic star. I don’t say anything about myself at all, except my institution and broad research field.
That’s because this email is not about me. In this email, I am making it all about them. I am tell them that I am interested in their research and I want to learn more about it. None of this is a lie. I picked them out of the conference bulletin because their research was generally interesting for me. And it is true that I could very well miss their panel – any conference with more than a few hundred attendees will have multiple sessions at a time. But if I have their paper then I can refer to it later.
If – and only if – they respond to me with interest in my research did I respond back to them with more detail about what it is that I do. Then I sent them an article or paper of mine. There are few that asked me many follow questions, but that is fine because I didn’t want to shove something on somebody who isn’t genuinely interested.
This principle of asking about others before talking about yourself is articulated by Dale Carnegie’s 1934 classic How to Win Friends and Influence People. While the book has been quoted into the ground by third-rate lifestyle coaches and suffers from an old-timey style, Carnegie makes an astute assessment: The fastest way to make another person like you is not to talk about your oh-so impressive achievements. Very few will ever remember anything you say. Rather it is to make the other person feel important.
You can do this with an academic by asking questions about their research. Once they explain it, ask follow-up questions. You will stand out because a shockingly small number of people ever do this. This holds true even for academics, many of whom love to have an achievement pissing about personal accomplishments.
Note: don’t try to fake interest. It will never work. You have to really mean what you are saying. You can’t compliment research that isn’t actually any good or doesn’t interest you out of a desire to gain their approval. Most people can sense when somebody isn’t interested in what they have to say.
Out of the 60 emails that I sent out, 35 responded back – a 60% response rate. This was at least triple what I expected. The quantity of responses was good but the quality was even better. Nobody flat-out refused to share their papers. Many of them happily sent it. Some asked me detailed questions about my research. A few even invited me to meet up with them the next time I was in town.
It was to those select few that I followed up with an article or even my dissertation. They appeared interested in reading it for future reference.
But the biggest benefit came during the conference itself. I now had dozens of people that I could go up to and strike up a conversation. I didn’t have to awkwardly approach a full professor, saying, “Excuse me Dr. Prestigious, but I wanted to introduce myself. I am an academic who has been heavily influenced by your scholarship and owe my entire existence to your incredible ideas. Please, please, please taken an interest in what I have to say.” Nobody respects such mewling obsequiousness (at least nobody you would want to spend much time with).
Rather, I could say, “Hi Dr. Prestigious, my name is Scott Rank. I emailed you a few days ago asking for your paper and you sent it to me. I wanted to thank you for doing that. I thought [thesis idea] in your paper was interesting.”
You already have a previous connection with them. There is none of the awkwardness of approaching them like the creepy academic equivalent of a pick-up artist.
Try out this strategy the next time you have to fly solo at an upcoming conference. You will be surprised how quickly it builds up your academic network. Soon you won’t have to fly solo at these any more.