10 Things Every Veteran Must Do to Properly Work a Conference or Job Fair

(Airman Eugene Oliver/U.S. Air Force photo)

You signed up, maybe paid an entrance fee, arranged for child care and believe you're set to attend a conference, networking event or job fair. But are you ready to get the most value from the investment of time, resources and energy?

I'm a big fan of preparation, even if it's just thinking through how you'll approach something or someone. Very few of us are successful at "winging it" when the stakes are high, and while adrenaline and excitement can help your confidence, maximizing value from an event takes more than self-assuredness.

Instead, here are 10 things to do to make sure you make the most of your valuable effort.

1. Prepare in Advance

  • Decide what you'll wear (is there a dress code?) and how you'll get there (will you drive and park or take public transit?).
  • Set a goal: What do you want to get out of the event? Are you looking to network or learn from the speakers?
  • Know the audience: Who do you know who will be there and who do you want to meet? Look at their LinkedIn profiles so you can prepare something timely to discuss with them.
  • Think through how the event will flow and what value you want to extract at every step; remember, the lunch or coffee breaks can be valuable networking opportunities!

2. Arrive Early or on Time

Here, your military training helps. Don't be late or you'll feel flustered, be relegated to a seat in the back of the room (or standing) and may miss a key opportunity for visibility.

3. Bring Business Cards

Or at least have a virtual card on your phone. Be ready when someone asks for your contact information. Either a virtual or printed business card makes it easy to connect and follow up. Don't bring your resumes (unless it's to a job fair and they've encouraged it).

4. Sit in the Front or Middle of the Room

Avoid the back of the room or sides. This might be most comfortable, but it's the least visible. You want to be seen and heard if/when you interact with the speaker giving the presentation. 

5. Ask a Question

Since you'll be prepared and will know which sessions you want to participate in, have a few questions ready to ask. When you're called upon, first introduce yourself and then ask your question. This way, the speaker can address you by name, and others can meet you as well.

6. Approach Someone Who Also Asked a Question to Further the Conversation 

During the break or at lunch, seek out others who asked questions in the program and follow up with a thought or additional comment to their questions. You've now started a conversation!

7. Plan Your Follow-up When You Meet Someone

As you're preparing to go to the event, think of an article, event, news headline or something else that you can reference in conversations. Offer to send the person you're speaking to a copy of that article or link to the event as a follow-up. Mentioning it at the event and then following up makes a positive impression! 

8. Keep Notes on What You Learned

Also, keep track of who you met. Carry a small notepad and jot down notes and ideas as you think of them. Then, as you follow up with someone you've spoken with or listened to, reference something they mentioned in their presentation or something discussed during a conversation. This jogs their memory and reminds them of the positive conversation they had with you.

9. Do Your Own After-Action Report

Do a debrief afterward. Reflect on what worked and what didn't. Did you prepare enough? Did you initiate enough conversations? Was there more you could have done to make the event a success?

Similarly, what did you do well? Did you stretch outside of your comfort zone and initiate conversations? Did you resist the temptation to stay with people you know and meet new people? What worked well?

10. Follow Up

With anyone you promised to follow up with, follow up. If you mentioned you'd connect on LinkedIn, send the invitation and personalize it. If you offered to invite them to coffee, send the invitation. If you promised to send a copy of your resume, send it with a polished cover letter.

Seminars, conferences and job fairs take time and energy to attend and get the most value from. Think through your goals in advance and work the event to ensure it was worth your time.

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