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From Engagement to Connection- 12 Steps to Start Genuine Business Connections

A big mistake made by many……not having an objective prior to a conference or event!  You have objectives for most business-critical processes, why not before you attend a conference or event? Most people attend to learn something new, to see what new products are offered in the industry and possibly to make new business connections.

Yet, whether you are attending a conference to learn something new or exhibiting at one, the hardest thing to do is to take that first step, break away from the crowd and make that personal connection with someone.

In our increasingly global and tech-connected world, you may think all of those things can easily just be done online with an email, LinkedIn or Social Media.  While these are all great tools, they are in no way able to replace the value of a face-to-face conversation.


I am an extrovert, but I find going into a large group of people sometimes intimidating.  Here are 12 tips that I use:

12 ways you can stand out from the crowd and connect

  1. Figure out who you want to connect with at the event well before you go
    • Are you looking to meet someone you could hire?
    • Do you want to meet other people in your field who can share best practices?
    • Are you hoping to connect with others in your industry?
  2. Figure out your plan at the conference
    • Which sessions or breakouts are you attending?
    • What are you hoping to learn at a particular session?
    • What types of questions are you hoping to get answered?
    • Make sure to plan your flights so you have plenty of time to attend the pre or post conference social events if they are available
  3. Register for networking or social events before you go
    • Many conferences have icebreaker welcome receptions or speed networking events. Take advantage of them.
    • Some conferences recommend restaurants or even plan out dinners for conference attendees to attend. Those dinners can fill up fast so make sure to register early.
  4. Reach out via social media before the event
    • Let your followers on Twitter or connections on LinkedIn know you are attending the conference and if you are registered for networking or social events at the conference
    • If you are exhibiting, you could reach out to your top clients or prospects and let them know that you will be at the conference and would love to say hi.
    • Try to connect on LinkedIn or follow speakers, key influencers or people attending the event.
    • If you are looking for something in particular at the show you may want to share that.
    • Don’t forget that some events have groups on LinkedIn for people interested or involved with the event.
  5. Have something to offer
    • That something could be as simple as being the first one to extend a hand and introduce yourself to someone standing alone.
    • You could share some information about the city you are visiting or give the other person the opportunity to brag about their hometown.
    • Share a success or failure you had and what you learned from it.
  6. Download the event mobile or web based applications
    • The quality and usability of event apps vary but they are likely to give you good data about the show in an easy to access manner.
    • Some apps offer ways to connect and message other attendees
    • Most have a map that shows where things are taking place and will notify you of any location changes.
  7. Connect with people in your area who are attending
    • South by Southwest actually sponsors regional meetups for people planning to attend their event.
    • Connect to other people in your company who are attending or would consider attending. Sometimes conferences will give out discounts if multiple people from the same company are attending.
    • Reach out to a speaker that you want to meet. They may be excited to get an insight about who will be in their audience.
  8. Wear your nametag
    • This way you will be easy to identify and it will make it easier for people you meet to remember or be reminded of your name and company
    • If you live in a unique or popular location you may consider highlighting that on your name tag, as it will be a good ice breaker. Back when I lived on Lover’s Lane in St. Joseph Missouri people always came up to me to ask me about it.   I am not nearly as popular now that I live in Minnesota on 45th N.
  9. Consider sponsoring an event or having a display at the conference
    • As a sponsor or exhibitor, you may get additional opportunities to meet people as they come visit your space.
    • If you are attending the conference as part of your job and you want to make some business connections your company may support you sponsoring a happy hour.
    • Alternative you could just host a dinner for a few key prospects.
  10. Speak at or help facilitate a session
    • Many events have networking roundtables or industry forums you could see if you can help facilitate one of these sessions. You are more likely to be able to meet people if you are involved.
    • When you speak at a conference you will get added visibility and credibility in your industry.
  11. Introduce yourself
    • For some, it can be physically painful to force yourself to do take the first step to introduce yourself, but trust me it gets easier with time. Just stick out your hand and say “Hi, I am … What brings you to the conference” “Have you seen anything new?” or even “Have you ever seen so much rain??”.   Remember that others may be looking for someone just to reach out to them!
    • Have a pre-scripted introduction of who you are and what you do in your mind that you can use, and a couple of questions you can ask in your head to get them talking. If you are not currently employed you could just say what type of position you are looking for or what skills you have.   You don’t have to tell people you are looking for a job unless they ask what you do.   Focus on making the connection.
    • Also in The New York Times article, An Introverts Guide to Networking Rebekah Campbell recommends reaching out to people you want to meet and just asking them for their business card so you can follow up with them later one on one if large crowds are challenging for you.
  12. Show up!
    • Yes, I know you are tired but often the biggest step is to leave the comfort of your cozy room to stop by at the after-hours event.
    • You don’t have to stay long but there is something magical that happens when many people get together to learn and some of the most valuable conversations and insights can happen at the end of those events, especially when you have someone to discuss what you learned. And you may just find as I almost always do, what a small world it truly is.
    • However, if you are completely exhausted or the topic or venue makes you uncomfortable don’t force yourself to go to an event. Attend a different event or reach out to people one on one and invite them for a cup of coffee or to share lunch with you instead.  If you want to make a real connection, you need to be authentic.


About the Author

Jon Althoff was the Senior Director of Global Marketing for Skyline Exhibits.

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