I just returned from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics “SciTech” Conference in Kissimmee (pronounced kiss-EM-me). SciTech is the largest event for aerospace research, development, and technology in the world. And we did host thousands of engineers from around the world. There is nothing like getting that many smart people together in one place to talk, share themselves, and just enjoy.
This is what AIAA does. We bring aerospace engineers (some might say nerds, I can identify with that!) together.
So SciTech was very exciting and very compelling for an aerospace tech nerd like me. There were technical presentations such as a hypersonic UAV Venus explorer. (It burns aluminum for fuel!) Lots of that great cutting edge aerospace tech! But you might not expect this. We heard from top aerospace leaders on the latest in attracting talent from across every diverse element of our world to come together to solve tough technical problems. We discussed systematic ways to solve environmental problems. And, most importantly, we networked with each other — sharing stories, problems, and solutions.
In fact, one of the big reasons I am a member of this professional engineering society is to mingle and interact with people like me, aerospace engineers.
Imagine my surprise. While at the conference, I found many people who apparently joined AIAA despite the danger that they might network.
OK, I am being tongue-in-cheek and maybe even a bit snarky for a guy who started out just as introverted and shy as any engineer. But a quick survey of the networking foyer revealed a host of individuals who seemed intent on not making eye contact. They did this by keeping focused on their smart phone, reviewing their conference schedule, staking out a remote isolated corner, or otherwise exhibiting all the body language of “LEAVE ME ALONE!”
Fortunately for them, I ignored it all and moved from person to person and group to group inserting myself into their private world. It was a real blast!
For instance, I went up to a group of obviously foreign students. I was pretty sure they were from China, but I might have gotten the country wrong. A great opening gambit while networking at these conferences is to ask: “So where are you guys in from?” I knew their response was going to be good when I saw the mischievous look in their eyes. “Iowa!” they said! So that got us off to a good start. Yes, China. Yes, students enrolled in university in cold, humid Iowa. Very glad to be in Florida in mid-January!
Many find it hard to step outside of their comfort zone to network as they can’t imagine any up-side to it. It was as if they had been over-schooled in Stranger-Danger. But you can learn to mingle and network. And the payoff is immediate.
The first step is your own personal outlook or attitude. You must come to the realization that most people are there to enjoy themselves. And part of that enjoyment will be in meeting you. This is not touchy-feely hoo-hah. This is true. If you meet anyone who doesn’t seem to act that way, just assume their mother died last week and go on to the next person or group. (This happened to me once, but it was an IEEE conference!)
Sitting in a room waiting for a presentation to start is a great time to strike up a conversation with a person near you. There are any numbers of opening lines you can use: “Cold in here, isn’t it?” “Have you seen this speaker before?” “Hi! My name is Charlie!” And the good old standby “Where did you come in from?” always, always, always works.
Second, set yourself a goal. Be present in the networking areas during the networking time and tell yourself you will meet “x” numbers of people new to you in “y” amount of time. For instance, “I will meet 4 new people over the next 40 minutes”. This satisfies your analytic itch. And it gives you a goal to attain.
Being an older gent, I like to survey the crowd and look for younger folks who seem as though they would not approach anyone else. If you are a younger person, maybe you’ll gravitate to some of the retired folks who attend these conferences. Asking them about their career will get you an instant interesting conversation. We all like to talk about ourselves!
Third, learn how to say goodbye after a few minutes and keep moving to the next person or group. You have a quota to meet! Keeping it fluid keeps you in the right frame of mind for the best networking.
It is all very positive, but there are a few DON’Ts:
Don’t seek out people who look as if they could further your career or otherwise immediately benefit you. The wrong attitude generates the wrong mood. And really, you don’t know who that person is. You probably just walked right by them looking for the “perfect” conversation.
Don’t steer your conversations to areas only you are interested in; look for common interests.
Don’t try to flirt. It is inappropriate and will most likely come across badly.
Don’t ignore someone because you think they look too different or may be too hard to understand. Trust me, these will be your best conversations.
Try to have business cards with you to share, or share your LinkedIn name. You can always turn down a LinkedIn connection request at your discretion. On the other side of this, when making a LinkedIn connection with someone you’ve met at an AIAA Conference, do it soon enough that they remember you, or remind them in the request who you are.
Here’s a scheme I use that works great. You need to try it whenever you are a singleton trying to get lunch. As you enter the overcrowded conference restaurant, walk right past the nice person who wants to ask how many in your party. It’s embarrassing anyway to say “one”. Act like you are there to meet someone, which you are. They just don’t know it yet.
Spy out a table with at least one empty seat, where the folks sitting there are wearing conference badges, and are still deciding on their meal (their menus are open). They are still getting oriented and are vulnerable to your will! (Bwah-ha!) Approach and use the key phrase: “May I join you?” Make it obvious it is just you. Make gesture at the crowds milling at the restaurant entryway to show that if they don’t say yes, you will likely starve before getting your own table.
It also helps to try to make your eyes large and brown like a little puppy.
Start to sit down as soon as one of them starts to say “sure” or in any way seems positive. This is no time for a table vote. Ask to share a menu. Ha! You are now one of the group!
The only thing is, you now have a great responsibility to be an interesting partner in the conversation. So be that person.
Engineer nerds take the initiative! Don’t pay attention to all those STRANGER DANGER ads! Interact. Meet people. Have fun!
After all, we called all these folks together just for you!
What are your networking tips? Comment below.