Conference Confidence: No Wallflowers (or Gossips) Allowed

UPDATED: May 8, 2012
PUBLISHED: May 8, 2012

I have a confession: For years, I attended countless conferences and industry functions. Only after dozens and dozens of events did I start to wonder why I wasn’t getting anything out of them. I did a little analysis and realized I’d always bring someone with me—a crutch—and we’d stand in a corner talking about everyone, instead of to everyone. That had to change—fast.

I decided I’d start going alone and vowed that I wouldn’t leave until I introduced myself to at least three new people. Didn’t count if they came to me; I had to make the first move.

This seemed to work; I’d get my three and then bolt. After about the fifth or sixth event, I remember catching my reflection in the glass exterior of a building on my way out. I stopped immediately—and said, “You’re a fraud.” I was keeping a little secret—and it was time to fess up.

Each time the three people whose hands I’d shake fell into the same category: they were always waiters. (And if they weren’t waiters, they were security guards.) They were the friendliest people to feel comfortable chatting up, so I took the easy way out. That is until I realized I was only fooling myself.

Today I still chat with the waiters—they’re always in the know about what’s really happening—but I make a point to spend the most time with attendees who are there just like me. Sometimes nothing comes of it. Mediocre handshake, barely a smile, and that look as if to say, “See ya.” But other times—most times—something great comes from working the room: a new lead, resource, nugget, client, idea, referral, something that never would have happened had I not put myself out there.

Attending live events requires you to be a participant, not an observer. Let go of your partner and meet as many people as possible, with a goal of leaving with up to three strong contacts. Get the card of those you’re focused on; don’t merely distribute yours. This keeps you in control of the all-important follow-up, which is where the magic really happens.

At my daylong Spark & Hustle conferences, I require attendees to change seats—and tables—every hour. It’s non-negotiable. This allows enough time to get to know seatmates, and also builds camaraderie among the larger audience. Those connections turn into clients, customers, collaborators and champions. Everyone wins—and you can too.

Tory Johnson is CEO and founder of Spark & Hustle, a weekly contributor on ABC's Good Morning America and a contributing editor of SUCCESS magazine.