Don’t Be Nervous – We All Want to Meet You: Networking at Conferences

Conferencing is fun, educational and nerve-wracking!  You’re in this big sea of people, in an unfamiliar place.  You have to get your badge, bag, program and figure out where Salon A is or if it’s different from Salon with two A’s.  On top of that you have to decide which session to go to, which exhibit table to visit and which seat to grab at lunch.  THEN you have to network too?  Phew, that’s a lot to do in a day or two.  So what’s the default thing to drop from this list to do?

Network.

Of course it is.  Networking is scary.  What if none of these strangers want to talk to you?  What if you look to the air when you introduce yourself, as if you forgot your name and it was written up there?  What if, when the inevitable, “what do you do” question comes up and you forget that you love children, teach them, guide them and grow them.

Building Relationships that Last

In honor of The National Association for Family Child Care Association’s (NAFCC) conference theme “Building Relationships that Last a Lifetime,” I thought it would be helpful to write a post about making the most of this conference by networking with your fellow family child care providers, vendors and you can’t forget about the speakers.  We can lay the foundation to build on at this conference.  It’s in just a few days so you have some work to do.  It will be worth it, I promise.

We, in the child care industry, are unique.  Especially, family child care providers.  The business you run is unique as well as your challenges.  So why wouldn't “conferencing” be a unique experience as well?  I say this because many of the “how-tos” for conference relationship building, you wouldn't immediately identify with.  For example, many of the articles tell us to bail on sessions because while they are informational, taking the time to establish a relationship is more important.  Well, this doesn't work for our NAFCC conference, does it?  You’re trying to get CEU’s so you have to attend your sessions but there is still ample opportunity to get out there and meet people. 

Another big difference is your purpose of meeting people.  You’re an entrepreneur, but you don’t necessarily want to grow your business.  Your business is very niche and local, so finding references or contacts for marketing isn’t necessarily what you need, you aren’t selling anything and the majority of you aren’t espousing a belief you want people to be on board with. 

So why do you want to connect with the wonderful people at the NAFCC conference? 

You want to talk about dealing with difficult parents or you want to start a Facebook group for Family Child Care Providers Focusing on Inclusion or you want to find all of the family child care providers that are blogging and link up with them or you want to talk about the CCDF rule and keep the conversation going when you get home…think about all of the things you want to talk about with your husband or girlfriends but they just don’t get it, this is your chance to find someone to talk to and establish the groundwork for building that lasting relationship.

Some Tips

I am going to share with you my take-aways and give you the links to all of the articles so you can delve deeper as you’d like.

Prepare, Prepare, Prepare

  1. Networking Goals.  Establish your networking goal before the conference.  Are you an early care advocate and want to find more people that advocate on behalf of young children?  Is there a speaker you are excited to see and want to talk to about a question you have or share a project you have done?
  2. Look at the ProgramLook over the schedule and see when you might be able to talk to people.  If your goal is to meet a speaker, find out when their sessions are.  Are there special sessions specifically for networking?  Yes, at the NAFCC conference there are.  There is the Red Carpet Event on Friday night, Ballroom Discussion Groups, Networking Sessions and the All Conference Lunch! 
  3. Decide What To Say.  Think of what you want to tell people about yourself.  Be brief and practice it in the mirror.  More importantly, think of questions to ask others, beyond “what do you do?”  For example: What’s your favorite part of taking care of kids?  What’s the hardest part of dealing with parents?  Do you have any side projects or businesses?  What do you think about the President’s Pre-K For All Plan?  What’s your favorite session at the conference so far?  Is there a workshop you are most looking forward to?

At the Conference

  1. Put Your Phone Away.  Put your phone away, make eye contact, smile and be prepared to talk and listen.  Pulling out your smart phone puts a protective, impenetrable bubble around you and it screams, don’t talk to me, I am smart-phoning. 
  2. Listen.  You need to listen to what the person you’re talking to is saying.  This is hard for me, when I am uncomfortable, instead of listening to what the person is saying I am thinking “Do I have food in my teeth?” “How do I describe what I do for a living?” “Does it look like I am listening?”  Listen, ask questions, be interested and in the moment.  You’ll be surprise by how natural it is to engage in conversation when you’re paying attention to the conversation.
  3. Find Someone You Don’t Know and Sit Down.  Don’t stay with your normal crew.  You already know them and you will have plenty of time to see them after conference hours.  Don’t sit in the empty aisle or at the empty lunch table.  I have accidentally started up conversations with strangers prior to workshops who ended up being people I wanted to meet.  When they gave me their card I had to do all I could from jumping up and down with glee.  You never know who you’re sitting next to, but you have to sit next to them.
  4. Exchange Information.  We don’t all have business cards but if you don’t have a business card, you typically have some sort of mobile device.  It’s always good to get the person’s information so you are in control of the next point of contact.  Follow, friend or connect on a social network right then and there.
  5. Social Media.  Follow the conference on social media.  Twitter is regularly used for conference chatter.  I don’t believe NAFCC has a hashtag but I will be tweeting using #NAFCC, you should too!   If you really like what someone is tweeting at the conference, tweet at them and see if you can meet up. 

Post Conference

  1. Make Contact.  Follow up with everyone you met and got contact information for.  This is the part that establishes that lasting relationship.  You can meet hundreds of people at a conference but if you don’t sit down when you get back and contact them, nothing will happen.

You can do it.  This is your chance to build some lasting relationships with people who are passionate about the same things you are, don’t waste it!

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Samantha Marshall, M.A.

Samantha is, just like you, excited to make a difference in our community and our world. With a Master of Arts degree in English Literature, you might ask how she found herself building and writing for a website focused on child care. From 1995 through 2001, Samantha started her career working for Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) sponsors which introduced her to the importance of non-profits, community and quality child care. Her experience with Sponsors, State Officials, and Family Child Care Providers left a great and lasting impression. Later in her career and her most recent position at SAGE Publications, an academic publisher, was as a product manager for a new online resource! During this time many of Samantha's passions collided. A love for the written word, children and the proliferation of knowledge as well as a fascination with the resources the internet gives us, building a community for child care on ChildCareInfo.com is the perfect way to make the difference she wanted to. Needless to say, she is very excited to be an active part of creating and building ChildCareInfo.com.