When people think about ELT conferences, they tend to picture the plenaries, presentations, workshops, and exhibitions. After all, these are the things which we see advertised in the online flyers and listed in the pages of programmes. And in terms of professional development these aspects of conferencing-going are a key part. However, I’d argue that most is often gained from the informal conversation you have with the person sitting next to you before a talk begins, the sharing of ideas over a coffee afterwards, and the chance meeting with someone who has similar interests. It’s called networking and although conference organisers can provide the right conditions for it to take place – you have to take the initiative.
When it comes to the topic of ‘networking’, some people don’t think there’s much to know – they’d say it’s just a case of being sociable and chatty. But actually, when you walk into a conference for the first time on your own, it can be quite daunting. It always seems like everyone else knows each other and are already in the midst of deep conversation. How do you enter into what can seem like a closed private party?
Here are some tips and ideas based on my training work with business students and from what I’ve learned since attending my first ELT conference in 1993.
1 Extroverts, introverts and ambiverts
Part of our reticence to ‘network’ is because we falsely assume that networking always requires you to be extroverted, outgoing and social. However, in a study by the University of Pennsylvania it was shown that people who often successfully network for their job (e.g. sales people) are neither extroverts, nor introverts but what we can call ‘ambiverts’; they combined the ability to make conversation but also to hold back and listen carefully to others. In other words, the skills that any good teacher learns to develop in the classroom.
2 Being interested
Successful networking between two people occurs when they are both equally committed and are both interested and interesting. Being interested means showing interest which we do with body language, eye contact from time to time, and also the odd remarks like I see or right. Teachers sometimes teach these kinds of ‘listening phrases’ to students and doubt their importance but when you attend an international conference you discover their value. Of course, being interested means being genuinely interested – just using body language and phrases alone won’t work and could come across as insincerity (because it would be!)
3 Being interesting
Being interested can only work if the other person is being interesting. This doesn’t mean you have to label yourself as some kind of fascinating raconteur. It simply means you need to give the other person something to respond to. For example, if the other person were to ask, ‘What do you do?’ and you replied, ‘I’m a teacher.’ it doesn’t give them much to work with to maintain the dialogue. Better instead to offer them a bit more by answering, ‘I’m a teacher based in [name of city/country], we have a school with over a thousand students…’ Already this answer makes me warm to the other person because they are giving me more about themselves and now I have more to follow up on.
4 Find out what you have in common
Research by the social psychologist Robert Cialdini showed that having an impact on others in social situations is more likely to happen when we find similarities or ‘commonalities’ which help us to attune to each other. Even if you feel you are unlikely to have anything in common with a person you’ve just met, go in search of the similarities. At a conference for teachers, the obvious connection will be your job, but commonalities might also include broader topics such as interests in sport/culture, recent holidays and travel, plans for the evening etc.
5 Open questions
This is perhaps stating the linguistic obvious but you create more conversation by asking questions that begin with why, what, where, how than with do, are, does, is. It does come with a word of warning. In some cultures, asking the other person a lot of questions is a sign that you are interested. However, in others, networkers use fewer questions to achieve turn-taking and asking too many questions can come across as overly-inquisitive. It’s a fine balance but, in general, questions indicate interest in the other person.
6 Share your contact details
I always used to think the idea of having a business card seemed slightly pompous at a conference. This unease and slight embarrassment often translated itself into me limply handing over a card (or even not daring to) until I eventually realised that other people are happy to receive them and will gladly hand over theirs. In recent years I probably hand fewer of them out simply because contact via online media has made them increasingly unnecessary. The point is that effective networking should result in the other person knowing how to get in touch with you a later date if they need to. So ‘share’.
7 Everyone else feels the same way
My final tip is this: when you’re seated at a conference next to someone you’ve never met before, and you’re wondering whether to strike up a conversation – do it. The likelihood is that they probably feel the same urge to chat to someone and are happy to find commonalities and share experiences. And if for some reason they don’t readily respond – maybe they’re taking a mental break – that’s fine, just turn to the person on the other side of you and start a conversation with them instead.