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Kevin McDonagh on: How to attend a conference

Kevin McDonagh is director at Novoda, a development consultancy for the Android platform. He is also an organiser of the London Android user group and the UK arm of Droidcon.

Kevin caught my interest when he casually mentioned that he typically came out of one day conferences with over a hundred business cards to follow up on. Out of those he usually gets at least one client (which makes up for even expensive, international conferences like Mobile World Congress.

Here, then, is his advice:

Conferences are the best way to quickly extend a business network and, if done correctly, attendance and the follow up is an arduous but rewarding endeavour. Uninitiated networking professionals commonly attend conference days in hope of stumbling across opportunity whilst floating amongst their peers, but without discipline, the majority of business opportunities are likely to go unrealised.

I considered my early conference attendance as a pleasant distraction. I attended only the cheapest / free events, which usually ensured their topics were tainted by sponsors. This isn't always the case as it was 6 years ago, since grass roots conferences organised by enthusiasts are more common nowadays.

At my first conferences I met and shared knowledge with great people talking about exciting prospects but after the event I failed to keep any further contact. These days I return home from conferences with a cringeworthy amount of follow-up, but the opportunities created from this process have ensured cash flow for my company months down the line. This is why attending a conference is an investment of both time and money, and you should be well aquatinted with how to see returns on this investment.

Here's a check list before I elaborate further:


  • Plenty of business cards;
  • A loose itinerary of possible contacts;
  • A ballpoint pen;
  • 1-minute demo / tablet pdf presentation;
  • Sound bites about you;
  • Charged Laptop, phones and chargers;
  • Planned route to and from the conference.

Attending: Excite and create opportunities

  • Speak to everyone;
  • Prompt them to lead;
  • Seamlessly lead into a short pitch;
  • Be quick;
  • Suggest next actions;
  • Write reference notes on their card.

Immediate follow up: politely present further opportunity

  • Use card notes as conversation points;
  • Append canned info responses;
  • Tie the knot.

Staggered follow ups: Plan to cultivate relationships

  • Building long lasting professional relationships;
  • Create calendar entries;
  • Notes on contacts.

The details


Plenty of business cards

I take 2-400 business cards depending on the event. These cards should look attractive and contain info about your 'professional' social networks, along with any relevant web links. Leave some white space upon which your contacts can write notes about your conversation. Novoda encourages this on cards with a leading statement: "You spoke to at:". I often fill out the place we spoke before leaving them to add any further notes.

A loose itinerary of possible contacts

There is likely a theme to the conference, so preparing some aims beforehand might help your casual conversations lead into something. Depending on the registration service, conference lists of attendees and speakers may be available on the site.

A few good ballpoint pens

People will ask you for one and you'll need to take notes. Don't use the rollerballs as they smudge on some laminated cards.

1-minute demo / tablet pdf presentation, and sound bites about you

Bright, picture laden presentation slides, and then a live demo, are how I professionally introduce myself. If the climate is more casual I just demo. While chatting, I flick through the presentation slides on an iPad while chatting (until I can get a good Android alternative tablet!).

Charged Laptop, phones + charger

I have a separate demo device with prepared shortcuts, to help with demos. Obviously, this is useless if it runs out of battery. And, if you're using it all day, it probably will run out.

Planned route to and from the conference

You don't want to waste two hours trying to figure out how get there only to get lost. Print out a google map (not susceptible to connection problems) and consider visiting the location the day before.

Attending: Excite and create opportunities

Speak to everyone

In the worst instances, I've known shy friends to only manage short conversations with a handful of people besides whom they were inconveniently stood or sat, at a conference of thousands.

This is a terrible shame for everyone involved. Attempting to literally speak with all attendees would be fruitless and boring, but please make the effort to meet a significant number of people. Subtlety is appreciated, rather than stepping from one person to the next like a machine, but the very reason everyone is in attendance is to share in a theme with others. The majority will thank your asserted approach, and are looking forward to your conversation.

Prompt them to lead

Don't just run up and start pitching, but don't leave them dangling for too long without relevant information either. Start by asking them questions rather than with a monologue. Ask them to explain their business interests. This will help identify if they are someone with whom you would like to work.

Seamlessly lead into a short pitch

Keep their interests in mind while speaking about yourself. Be memorable by speaking passionately, with obvious expertise about relevant business. Help your new contact find potential in your product.

Be quick

Everyone recognises a pitch. Get through the best areas until they are satisfied they are speaking to an expert. Don't bore your newfound contact. If you are continually seeing glazed looks, consider shortening your presentation. If they want to hear more, they will prompt you for it.

Suggest next actions

Don't rely on your new connections to flourish without a lot of painstaking effort. Respect is earned in a relationship, but you are likely going to be the only one who cares in the beginning, so it will likely be yourself who suggests any immediate opportunities. Play your cards right, and further down the line they will be honoured to do the same in return.

Write reference notes on their card

After the conversation, take notes to help remember:

  • intros
  • actions
  • companies
  • products.

Not an essay, just short memorable tags to trigger your memory. Don't be too obscure, or reviewing the cards days later can become confusing. Take notes after speaking with someone, or just as you are leaving, but see what works for you best. Sometimes writing in front of a contact will prompt them to also write on your card.

Immediate follow up: politely present further opportunity

The real work begins after the conference. Build relationship ties, now that you have faces to go along with names.

Use card notes as conversation points

Each of your emails should be customised to discuss matters noted on their card. A good initial email will be relevant and engaging, but most importantly, it will actively pursue further interaction and leave as few reasons not to follow up as possible.

A few good techniques are:

  • immediately present valuable information;
  • ask for their advice on a particular matter while ending with a question to encourage recourse;
  • suggest two meeting times and places to speak further.

Append canned info responses

Regardless of how interesting you are, I'm sure the majority about yourself and your time at an event will be similar. Rather repeatedly typing it out, write one or two generic responses and paste them into the starts of your mail. Don't send them verbatim, as you are not a robot! Instead use them as cues to write over and adapt.

Tie the knot

After sending your quick email introduction, please don't ask for their hand in marriage. Instead, start lightly, but keep them closely connected for future follow ups. Avoid legacy technology like rolodexes and paper tombs of client directories. Social networks and CRM tools are more useful and practical.

After sending an initial email, connect with the recipient through LinkedIn, as they are now likely to know your name. Occasionally, at the same time, I'll follow an interesting twitter stream, comment on a code changeset, or comment on their blog post. It is the culmination of many considerate little acts which will add character to your relationship.

Staggered follow ups: Plan to cultivate relationships

Building long lasting professional relationships

If your new contacts can immediately benefit from your further introductions, make sure to proactively introduce them to one another. Making professional introductions at your own expense is often rewarding at a future date, as a relationship is not a one time deal. As pointed out by Paulina yesterday, there is no better way to earn friendship and trust than through offering opportunities.

Create calendar entries

Put notes in your calendar to revisit contacts two weeks, a month, and three months after your initial contact. Chances to work together are fleeting, as are people's attentions. An inevitable majority of your new contacts will quickly fall silent, but as your reputation increases, you will see this percentage decrease. Silent leads do not mean that there is no longer an opportunity. As I discussed, relationships are for the long term, so keep in regular contact and repeat the previous step but with new information.

Notes on contacts

Once you email someone they are in your contacts list and their details will become a whole lot more valuable if you remember who they are. So flesh out the contact entries with notes about them and when you were last in contact. Filling out these often empty fields in your contacts is time consuming, but it will be worth it in two years time when they contact you through a referral.

In conclusion

These steps shouldn't come as any surprise. The logic in the above approach is obvious, but the discipline of enforcing the steps is what will guarantee fruitful leads and new business for years to come.

Applying a systematic, well-tuned approach to conferences will help you make the most of them. I look forward to meeting you at the next conference!

This article is part of a series.

More from the library:
Faking initial user interest
What is a startup?
How to invalidate your startup idea