Ask Lin: How to Stand Out at a Conference

Vice Chair Lin Gao gives her expert advice on career development

Lin Gao 2011_3.JPG

Dear Lin: Are business conferences still valuable? I feel like I have easy access to industry information and that the value of these events isn't what it used to be. What's so great about conferences these days?

I would argue that conferences are still good places to build your professional network, to get your name and your work out there if you know how to maximize the opportunity. AmCham China has two big events coming up, the HR Conference on Oct. 29 and the Annual General Meeting on Nov. 19. Here are my tips for making the most of these and other conferences.

 

1. Come prepared.

Before the conference, read the agenda thoroughly to identify the sessions and the speakers you don’t want to miss. Sometimes conferences run parallel sessions so it’s wise to make up your mind ahead of time which session you want to go to. Do some research on the speakers you want to meet, learn about their backgrounds, look for things that you might share in common such as alma mater, hometown or anything that can help you strike up a meaningful conversation.

 

2. Don't get intimidated.

For those speakers you want to meet, proactively reach out to them. Don’t be intimidated by their position or fame. The fact that you’re in the conference means you deserve to be there.

If you introduce yourself before they speak, tell them what you know about their background on the topic to be discussed and how you look forward to hearing their talk. If you do this after they speak, tell them how their talk was helpful to you. But don’t just say “Thank you, that was great!” Be specific – what did you learn and how is it helpful to you? Whatever you say, don’t ask for a picture!

If you have something meaningful to share, celebrities can be more personable than you might think. I once talked to Yao Ming after he finished a panel discussion at the Fortune Forum. After talking to him for 10 minutes, my neck was sore as hell. Yao was so kind to pull over a chair so he could sit down and talk to me, putting me at ease.

 

3. Be an active participant.

Set a goal to ask at least one question during the conference. Keep it simple and short. Don’t ask a question just to show off how knowledgeable you are, because people didn’t pay to hear from you – they paid to hear from the speakers.

Keep in mind that your potential employers, clients or business partners might be in the audience. Last summer, I was contacted by a recruiter from one of those premier executive search firms that focus on C-suite level positions. Totally flattered, I asked the recruiter how he got my contact, and his answer surprised me. He said he went to a government affairs professional conference where I asked a few questions during the panel discussion. He thought my questions were sharp and liked how I presented myself. Up to that point, I’ve always thought professional conferences were for learning new ideas, getting on top of industry trends and meeting like-minded people. I didn’t realize that seeing is as important as being seen.

 

4. Follow up within 72 hours.

If you run out of business cards but promised people to email your contact, then do it within 24 hours. If you want to write a follow up thank-you note to one of the speakers, do it within 48 hours. If met someone and promised you are going to send him/her your latest article, do it within 72 hours. In a fast moving world, 72 hours is perhaps people's maximum tolerance.

 

Lin Gao, an AmCham China Vice Chairman, is a certified leadership coach, trainer and writer with 20 years of management experience in both China and the US. To submit a question for her, contact editor@amchamchina.org.