Networking: Using EPA's Convention to Build Relationships
by Doug Trouten
People who have been coming to EPA conventions for a while think of them as family reunions: a chance to get together with people they know, love, have a lot in common with, and don't see that often. But for somebody who is new to EPA coming to a convention can also be like attending a reunion -- of somebody else's family!
How do you make it past that initial awkwardness and become "one of the family"? Here are some tips to make the transition easier.
1. Think about why you want to meet others at the convention. EPA gatherings are a unique opportunity to build relationships with people who have jobs a lot like yours – or who can help you do your own job better. That room isn't full of strangers – it's full of people who can offer advice, support, resources, and a sympathetic ear.
2. If you brought somebody with you or have already made a friend, be careful not to cling to them. Knowing one person at an event is a good start, but unless you strike out on your own it could keep you from meeting a second person. It's easier to meet new people by yourself – the "two's company, three's a crowd" rule can make people feel uneasy when they're approached by two folks who already have a relationship.
3. Wondering who to talk to first? Look for people sitting or standing by themselves. They're probably feeling just as lost as you are, and will welcome a little company.
4. Should you make the first move? Here's the short answer: yes! Remember -- you're not the only person who wants to meet others at the convention. By introducing yourself and breaking the ice you're doing somebody else a favor.
5. Did you get the brush off? Your outstretched hand was ignored? This won't happen often at EPA, but if it does don't sweat it. Maybe the person you were talking to was lost in thought. Or maybe they're hard of hearing – and severely nearsighted. Or maybe they're just rude (if so, did you really want to talk to them?). Whatever the issue is, it's their problem – not yours. Move along and meet somebody else.
6. Not sure how to pick a table at mealtime? There are several good strategies. You can sit down at a table by yourself and let people come to you (just don't sit clear at the back, or you might wind up alone). You can find somebody sitting alone and join them. You might see a table where every chair but one is filled – that's a perfect place for you. Just ask if the seat is taken. If it is, move on. There's a spot for everyone – and to maximize your "networking" time, you want a spot surrounded by people you don't know. Remember, a stranger is just a friend you haven't met yet.
7. Don't have anything profound to say? Then ask a question. Everybody loves a good listener. Here are a few conversation starters: "How was your trip in?" "Have you picked out any good workshops to attend?" "What have you been to today that was worthwhile?" "What did you think of that speaker?" If they went to last year's EPA convention ask them what they liked best. If this is their first convention, ask them why they decided to attend. Even though you just met you have at least one thing in common: you're both attending the convention. Start with that and build.
8. Remember to ask, "What do you do?" It's a professional conference for people in the publication industry, so the answer is bound to involve a shared interest. When you give your own answer to this question, be sure to go beyond job title. Give a bit of description, since every shop is a little different.
9. At some point, you may want to exchange business cards. Keep your own handy, and put the ones you collect into a different pocket so you don't wind up mistakenly giving out somebody else's card as your own! At some point, jot down "EPA" and the year on the back of each card you gather, so you can remember where you met the person. If they don't have a card just jot down their name, and remember to find them later on the convention attendance list you'll receive in your registration bag.
10. When you get back from the convention, don't let those contacts gather dust. At the least, stick them in a "data to file" folder until you have time to enter them in your rolodex or contact manager. Send a quick note or e-mail to people you particularly enjoyed meeting. If you promised somebody you'd send something (a clipping, a sample issue, writer's guidelines, etc.) fire it right off. Keep that contact alive as appropriate throughout the coming year.
Doug Trouten is the former executive director of the Evangelical Press Association.