One of the most powerful tools a designer can wield is a finely-honed business network, comprised of skilled and knowledgeable peers. Actively maintaining your network via social media, word of mouth, and good, old-fashioned business transactions will help you tailor a beautiful working environment for growing your business. 

But how do you get to that point? How do you meet all the talented people you’d like to interact with?

Whether you choose to attend virtually or in-person, one of the best venues for getting a chance at this real-world interaction is a conference.

adults walking around the lobby at a conference

Conferences come in all shapes and sizes, and can range from high-priced and formal to inexpensive and relaxed. Design conferences, of course, will be perfect for you, but don’t be afraid to branch out. Visiting a conference that focuses on your community, entrepreneurship, marketing, or different branches of tech can provide you with useable information and a pool of beneficial new contacts.

Attending things like this can be a wonderful experience, but it can also be overwhelming. You’ve either planted yourself into a large gathering with lots of new faces or a virtual setting where speaking up can seem awkward, so in order to make this a valuable experience, prepare yourself to be an active participant. 

Show up with intention.

Have you ever met someone new, shaken their hand, and then immediately forgotten what their name is? This is a common occurrence in everyday life, and is an even more likely scenario in a conference setting when so many people are making a point to introduce themselves. Reminding yourself to approach introductions deliberately and coming prepared to retain information is a good step in avoiding this.

hands with well-manicured nails hold a cell phone and a to-go cup

Luckily many conferences encourage name tags, but if you’re looking to make long-term connections, it’s more beneficial to commit your new contacts to memory as best you can. Try to work their name into the conversation as a reminder for yourself, and to show your new connection that you’re invested in the discussion.

Collect (and hand out, if you’re into that kind of thing) business cards, bring a small notebook, or even use a note-taking option on your phone to jot down important information about your new acquaintances. People appreciate being remembered, and if you’re working hard to be an active listener, they’ll have a better chance of remembering you, too. (In a virtual setting, you can even cheat a little by writing down names in a notebook off-screen!)

Be deliberate in your conversations.

It can be tempting to meet as many people as possible, especially if you’re new in your career and eager to make connections. Remember, though, that you’re here to make meaningful connections, and that requires some mental investment. Listen to what this new person has to say, and ask questions.

“What do you do?” and “What brings you here?” are great starters, but try to find out more. What does this person love about his or her profession? How many times have they attended the conference? What did they think of the keynote speaker? Are they attending any additional conferences this year?

The events of the day will provide plenty of talking points, and bringing them up is both a great way to gauge a person’s stance on various issues and make the conversation a memorable one.

black and white photo of three people talking in front of a window overlooking a city skyline

Follow up with sincerity.

An important part of conference networking is how you interact with attendees after the conference is over. Think about the people you met throughout the day… who did you “click” with? Who did you find to be particularly interesting or enjoyable to talk to? Focus on these folks, and take the time to do a little research on your new connections.

If they have an online portfolio, check it out. If you encounter the opportunity (and genuinely like their work), make a referral or practice a little word-of-mouth marketing to build them up. The power of client-referral is strong in the world of entrepreneurship, and greatly appreciated.

Follow these new people on your favorite social media platforms. Connecting with conference contacts this way is more than useful… it’s fun! It’s an easy way to get to know someone with common interests via things like GIFs and shared blog posts, which will ultimately provide you with more things to talk about in the future. Even a quick email to say that you enjoyed your conversation could go a long way.

The term “networking” inherently suggests that you are interacting with people in order to facilitate personal gain. While this is true, it doesn’t have to be the whole story. Personal gain can come in many forms, ranging from financial payoff to personal enrichment.

Regardless of your end goals, the practice of participating actively in conversations is a necessary skill that will place you in a healthy ecosystem of positive business contacts—and the perfect place to start working on it is a conference full of like-minded, proactive people like yourself.