Derek Sivers

How to attend a conference

2008-12-12

Attending a music conference is the most efficient way to meet the most number of the best contacts.

People who attend conferences are ambitious, working in the industry now, and open to meeting new people.

I highly recommend you go to a few music industry conferences every year.

That said… Most people completely waste their time and money when they attend a conference. So here’s how to do it right:

Get interested and listen.

You know the way to be interesting to others is to be interested in them.

So the week before the conference, read one or two books about how to be a great listener. (The original classic from the 1930s is titled “How to Win Friends and Influence People” but there are many similar books about people skills, and they’re all good.)

Then use the conference as your testing ground for your new listening skills. Get extremely interested in those around you. Think like an investigative reporter.

For each person you meet, think about how can you help them.

Turn to a stranger and say, “Hi. What do you do?”

Ask how they got into that. Ask what’s hard about it. Figure out how you can help them.

If they’re too shy, help by introducing them to the next person you meet and inviting them to dinner. If they’re too popular, help them escape the crowd for a little peace and quiet.

Trade contact info within a few minutes of meeting. If you wait too long, one of you will get pulled away, and it will be too late.

If you’re an introvert like me, this will be exhausting. But you only need to do it for a few hours, and this only happens a few times per year. It’s worth the effort.

Each night, before bed, enter everyone’s info into your database, including your private notes on what you remember about each person. It’s crucial to do this before you meet more people the next day.

Send them a message immediately, connecting the digital you to the physical you. (“Hi John. Good to meet you today. You were right about the bicycles! Here’s a link to that site you asked about. See you at the closing party tomorrow.”) Include your full contact info.

By being sincerely interested in them and actively trying to help them, they will probably be interested in you and try to help you.

What about you?

Notice I said nothing about promoting yourself. This is about them, not you. Your promotion will come later.

People will ask what you do. Don’t give a boring answer — it’s rude. If you say “I’m a bassist”, then they’ll say “oh”, followed by awkward silence and an excuse about why they need to walk away now.

Before the conference, come up with one interesting sentence that says what you do — including a curious bit that will make them ask a follow-up question. For example: “Bassist of the Crunchy Frogs — the worst punk bluegrass band ever. We’re headlining the showcase tonight. Our singer is a pirate.” See how that would lead to questions? Anyone who hears that will ask you why you are the worst, or why your singer is a pirate. You’re helping them engage in a conversation! Also, by quickly mentioning an accolade, you’re showing them you’re worth knowing.

But please stop after you say your sentence. The only thing worse than a short boring answer is a long boring answer. Leave room for them to ask something! If they don’t, change the subject back to them.

Don’t push your stuff on someone who isn’t asking for it. It’s the biggest turn-off of all. Because it shows you don’t understand the real point, which is…

Real business is done in the follow-up, not the conference itself.

The conference itself is a mad blitz of distractions. Only use it for these initial connections.

Assume that anything you hand someone at a conference will be thrown out. So don’t do it, unless they ask.

Instead, if you want them to have something of yours, send it to them later.

The best time to get down to business is when they’re alone, back at their office, a week or two after the conference, and can give you their full one-on-one attention.

That’s when you want someone to check out what you have to offer: when they’re focused on you.

They’ll remember you as very interesting. Then they’ll find out you’re also very talented.

It’s all about the follow-up.

After attending over a hundred conferences in twenty years, I can tell you from experience that only about 1% of the people ever follow up. Therefore, 99% of them wasted their time and money. Please don’t be in that 99%.

Everything happens in the follow-up. Remember this, and you’ll do well.