Heading to a conference or attending a job fair? Here are 7 tips I use personally that can help you get the most out of the event.
- Have a game plan – It is unlikely that you will have time to make real connections with the whole crowd or all of the presenters at a job fair. Therefore, you should try to get a list of attendees beforehand and get a game plan together. Prioritize the connections you want to make by doing some research beforehand and then follow this list as the day/event progresses. It’s interesting that everyone knows that prior to an interview you should do some research about the firm at which you are interviewing, but then they don’t follow this same advice for conferences/job fairs.
- Collect relationships, not cards – Too many people count the number of cards they collect as a scorecard of success at the event. However, if those cards have no connection to go along with them, then they provide little to no value. Find a common interest so you can actually make a connection with the person and then use the business cards as a reminder of this connection and to have their contact details. I like to take notes on cards so I can reference something specific that was discussed when I reach back out to them.
- Use non-engineering connection points – Sure, you are at this event because of your engineering interests, however, so is everyone else. If you want to be memorable and really connect with some of the others, then look for connection points beyond your engineering interests. This might mean that you went to the same university, grew up in the same city, both have some similar hobbies, or that you follow the same sports team. People want to do business with (and hire) people who they know, like, and trust. Having these stronger connections through other interests can really help you in all three of those areas.
- “Only” 5 or 10 minutes can be valuable – Sure, it would be nice to have a breakfast meeting with all of your potential contacts where you can really go deeper into the discussion. However, this should not discount the fact that shorter meetings can be just as valuable. The important thing with shorter meetings is to remain on topic and ensure that you are memorable. Then, you can follow up in the weeks following the event and potentially set up a time for a longer meeting if that is required. Just to be clear, if they offer you a 15-20 minute time slot, you should take that over a shorter opening. However, if all they have is 5-10 minutes available, don’t be too disheartened as that can be valuable as well.
- Hone your 15-30 second pitch – Quick. Tell me what it is you do and your engineering interests. Can you do it? This is often called the ‘elevator pitch’ and can be used when you are only with someone for a short period such as an elevator ride. In many senses, this follows up on the comment I made above that you only have 7 second to make a positive impression. You can elaborate further as the conversation develops. However, it is very important to be able to have a quick few lines that detail your work & interests in case the conversation only ends up lasting a few minutes.
- Dress accordingly – Note, I didn’t tell you to dress in a suit or to be in more professional attire per se. The key here is to dress accordingly so that you fit the crowd and don’t stick out like a sore thumb. Wearing a three-piece suit when everyone else is wearing slacks a button down shirt will look as out of place as the guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt in a suit & tie environment. The best plan is to dress near the higher end of the range, so that you can be memorable in a good way. Don’t know what to wear? My go-to plan is a nice pair of slacks with a button down shirt and a blazer. I’ll wear shirts with some patterns or color, but generally keep them toned down. This keeps me in the same league as people who might be wearing suits, but I can also just take off the blazer if the crowd is a bit more casual. Two other general clothing tips . . . Don’t forget to polish your shoes beforehand. You might think that nobody is looking down at your feet, but they WILL notice scuffed up shoes and it’s going to hurt your first impression. Also, while I don’t recommend anything too wild, don’t be afraid to were some colors or patterns to show your personality. It will help you stick out from the crowd in a good way.
- Don’t be afraid to make that first step – Sometimes, you will have to go outside your comfort zone and make that first step even if you feel uncomfortable doing so. What really helps many of the engineers I mentor is to change their mental outlook to “what’s the worst that can happen?” Honestly, if you walk up to someone and they brush you off, then you are back where you started. So why not take that chance for the potential gains to which it can lead.
- Be approachable and appear interested – How long does it take for people to form an initial opinion about you? 7 seconds. Yep, research shows that it happens that fast. The standard advice to improve that first impression is through a smile and a firm handshake. While those can help, the most important factor is to appear approachable when you are at the event. If you stand there checking your watch looking bored or staring off and disinterested with the event, then people won’t make their way to you or open up the conversation circle to include you as quickly. A smile and general friendly demeanor as well as reaching out for a handshake can help, but they are not an absolute need.
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