I’ve been to dozens of journalism conferences. I have lost count. But throughout the years, I have been able to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
I have made many professional connections and developed great friendships from my visits to NAHJ, IRE, RTDNA, EIJ and AEJMC conferences. I have also found 90 percent of my jobs from my networking at those conferences.
Here are my 15 tips to help you get the most out of any journalism conference you plan to attend this summer.
1. Comfy shoes are a must. For you ladies, sure heels make your legs look great, but after a few hours walking the conference floor you’ll beg for comfort. Pack a pair of flats in your bag for later. Men, comfort matters for you too.
2. Get out of the “pack” mentality. We often get into the habit of hanging out in groups. It’s our comfort zone. Be adventurous and roam on your own. It forces you to meet people. This also includes when you go to the after conference parties and hang-outs. I know a lot of people, because I love to walk around alone and just talk to everyone and anyone.
3. Start a conversation with anyone you see hanging out by themselves. He could be your next boss, or she could have that next opportunity of a lifetime. I say hello to everyone whether I meet people when they get in an elevator with me or walk by me. “Hi! How’s it going?” Is a great way to start a conversation.
4. GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR PHONE. Sorry, I had to say that very loud. When you have your head buried in your phone, you miss opportunities to meet people. Also people, including news managers won’t approach you, because you look busy and preoccupied with your phone. Your text and Facebook can wait. Put your phone away, look up and enjoy the view. And please DO NOT take your phone out and start gazing at your Instagram, especially when you’re in conversation with new people and in a group. It’s rude.
5. Look happy and smile. Those two things make people want to get to know you. Sometimes you see people at conferences and they already look tired and miserable. Don’t be that person.
6. Business cards matter. Yes, it may sound old school, but it’s easier to hand someone a business card than a resume. It’s even better if it has a photo of you. There is no way they can forget your face. Also when you collect a card, write a few notes on it to remind you of that person.
7. Invite people to join you. If you see someone alone, who looks like they need someone to hang out with, don’t hesitate to invite them to join you and/or your group. Another great way to get to know people. I do it all the time. Many of those people have become good friends.
8. Find a mentee. I usually leave a conference with more than half a dozen mentees. Remember it’s about paying it forward. There are people who need your expertise and guidance. Be giving with your time.
9. Find a mentor. Some of you may feel that you need someone to guide you in your career. The conferences are a great place to find that person who you feel can help you on your journey. There are many people waiting for the chance to be a mentor. Don’t be afraid to ask. And if they don’t seem interested, move on…there are plenty of others.
10. Plan your conference, and even schedule in your networking time. There will be dozens of panels and workshops. Sit down and write out your day and schedule in your networking time during conference hours. It will help you not miss a beat.
11. The best time to meet news managers is when they are taking a break from the recruiting booth, walking around the conference hall or getting a cup of coffee. I learned that tip a long time ago. When you get to the job fair, check out who is recruiting at your target company. Make a mental note. If you see them later taking a break, don’t hesitate to approach them. “Hi there! Aren’t you with ABC News? I saw you at the booth. I’m Rebecca Aguilar. How’s everything going so far?” Start the conversation. Get to know them. Sometimes they are more relaxed and may invite you back to their booth to continue the conversation. Once again, be the person outside “the pack” standing in line.
12. Make time to put on your sneakers and walk outside and enjoy the fresh air. Sometimes we’re in such conference mode that we forget just to relax and breathe. Yes, conferences can take a toll on you, because networking takes effort and being out late sucks up time to sleep. Get out and relax and get some sunshine. It makes a difference.
13. Act like a professional even at the after-parties. Do not forget that recruiters and managers go to the after parties and hang out at the hotel bar too. What I’m saying is don’t do something that can end up “going viral” for the wrong reasons and hurt your reputation.
14. What not to wear. A journalism conference is still a professional setting. What you wear says a lot about you. Don’t kid yourself, it does. Before you leave that hotel room, look in the mirror and ask yourself if you are dressed to meet the Pope, the President and would your parents approve. Give your outfit my “3 P’s” test. Believe me it works. What I’m saying is leave the mini skirts and muscle shirts in your suitcase.
15. As soon as you return home, don’t forget to send out a few thank you cards. Yes, old school again. Send them to people who made your conference experience very special and who took the time to give you advice.
Most of all enjoy the ride!
Bonus Tip: Start saving for next year’s conference when you get home. It helps to plan ahead. Whether you’re a professional or a student, it’s okay to start saving right away. Put $10 cash in a jar every week. It will add up by the time the next conference rolls around. No need to start a GoFundMe or beg people for a donation. Do it on your own.
Bonus Video. You can pack everything for the conference in a carry-on bag.