NAFSA 2015 was my first conference experience. Ever. If you’ve read anything about first experiences at NAFSA (or had one of your own), you can probably imagine what an overwhelming and intimidating time it was.
Somehow, during my very first time at any type conference -- much less a 10,000 person strong event like NAFSA -- I still managed to make some incredibly awesome, career-shifting connections.
Since NAFSA last year, I’ve gotten to practice and refine my conference-going skills by attending the GSA Summit (~600 people), The Forum on Education Abroad (~1200 people), and even SXSW (~50,000 people) where I got to interview DJ Khaled! But during that first conference, I was fortunate to have a ton of support from an amazing group of international educators going into my first NAFSA, and able to do some research ahead of time. That said, I wish there had been a more broad and in-depth networking-at-NAFSA resource available.
I know people reading this will be attending NAFSA 2016 for different purposes. Regardless of if you're going to make new partnerships or hunt for a job, here are just a few strategies that will ensure you have an awesome time at NAFSA:
1. Is it Your First Time? Don't Pay Full Price
If this is your first time attending NAFSA and you're not a member OR this is your second/third/whatever time at NAFSA and you're not a member yet, don't pay full price for the conference. Go Overseas has partnered with NAFSA to offer 20% discounts on all tickets for anyone who falls into either of those two categories. Use them and save yourself (or your company) some money.
2. Rest Up Before the Conference and Stay Healthy During It
I got to NAFSA15 unbelievably sick after driving across the country. I spent the day before the conference in bed trying to recover, and didn’t feel fully well until day two of the conference. It was awful. Though getting sick is beyond anyone's control, do your best to make sure you're well rested and healthy. NAFSA is a long conference -- 5 full days -- so being rested and healthy is more important here than at other conferences.
Don't let it stop there, either. NAFSA is a marathon, not a sprint and you'll need to make every day better than the last by making sure to eat well and sleep a reasonable amount. Go Overseas' COO, Tucker, recommends stocking up on Cliff bars and bananas when you arrive so you'll always have something quick and healthy to eat for breakfast.
Try not to get too distracted with work, either. Put your email away message on. Delegate and reschedule as much as you can so you’re not tempted to work between sessions. If you can avoid it, let yourself rest when the day is over instead of trying to catch up on work, and sleep until you’re ready to get up and go to right back to the conference.
Oh, and those after parties? Cut back on drinks and don't feel bad about bailing out early if you have to.
3. Learn About NAFSA and Your Fellow Attendees
If you haven’t already, go dig through the NAFSA website, blog, and Wikipedia page. Knowing the history of the organization and its purpose adds so much to the experience of attending.
Try to do your research on speakers and presenters ahead of time as well, in case there’s anyone you’d like to meet or talk to. Arrange lunch or a hallway coffee break in the days of the conference before their speech or presentation - everyone will want their attention after they present.
Don’t hesitate to ask people you know in the field who have been to NAFSA what they think the best way to spend time at NAFSA is. If it’s your first time, ask people what advice they would give themselves for their first time.
4. Don’t Rush a Connection
This applies to any networking event, but especially huge conferences. People worry too much about meeting the right person, taking to someone specific, or making the perfect impression or pitch to someone important.
Ask anyone who’s been to any conference for several years in a row, and they’ll tell you that the best part is seeing old friends and ending up in interesting conversations that may or may not have to do with work. So don’t rush a connection. It takes time.
This is especially true about networking. Author Tim Ferriss says in his podcast episode on networking, “Behave like everyone can give you a cover story on the New York Times” -- perhaps in our field this is better put: Behave like everyone you talk to can give you your travel-the-world dream job.
What I mean is that you shouldn’t dismiss people. Don’t be mean or condescending. Give everyone the benefit of the doubt. Treat everyone like they are important.
Aim for one honest, personal, deep human connection with one new person over the course of the conference. If you can do that, you’ve had a better time at NAFSA than almost everyone else.
5. The Small Talk Is The Big Talk
Most job applications happen online. Most business deals involve Skype calls and emailed documents.
Conferences are a much more rare, special kind of opportunity. You’re probably not going to make your next deal here, and you’re probably not going to get a job. You’re here to build relationships.
You’re in a unique part of the year where you share a single physical space with a majority of the international educators on the planet. You’re surrounded by new people and new perspectives. Now is the time to get to know them and to have fun, meaningful conversations about all sorts of things.
You can talk about work over email later. Now is a time to make friends.
6. Choose Sessions Based on Biographies, Not Titles
Choose sessions based on biographies, not on titles. What people on a panel or breakout session do for a living is often a far more interesting and informative aspect of their presentation description than the title they’ve provided.
If no session interests you at a given time, the expo hall is always open. Use that time to learn more about the exhibitors.
7. Don't Try to Get, Try to Give
Worried you don’t have anything to give? Be a great listener. Get curious. Ask questions. “What brings you to NAFSA? What is the biggest challenge for your office is facing right now? Who is the most interesting person you’ve met so far?"
If you’ve ever read any good psychology books, you’ll know that people often solve their own problems so long as you give them space to get their ideas out in words and ask questions to follow their ideas to their natural conclusions.
8. Bring Your Whole Self
Sure, we’re all here for international education, but people are so interesting! I write about artificial intelligence, I make youtube videos, and I have an aerial photography company I run with a few friends as a side project!
Bring all your interests into the conversation. Talk with people about their hobbies, and ask people how their other interests inform their work in the field. The most creative ideas are born of a combination of multiple fields of expertise, so inviting different kinds of experience into the discussion you’re having about international education or meaningful travel can often facilitate much more interesting, productive conversations.
9. Take Notes
Have a notepad, like the Evernote app, open on your phone to grab emails and write down book recommendations during the conference. Try to journal and write about what happened each day when you get back to your room.
After you get a business card, jot down a note about the person that'll help you remember them and follow up later (just try not to take notes on business cards in front of people. This can sometimes be considered rude.) If possible, write the entire follow-up email you intend to send that night, but save it as a draft or text file and send it once people get back to work.
Most people will tell you to wait a week or two so your message doesn't get lost in the avalanche of post-conference follow-up mail. Lately, this advice has become so popular that immediate conference follow-up actually isn’t that big a problem. I find that waiting two weeks difficult because I forget what our conversation was about, or I get moving on other projects and never get around to following up. So to combat this, I have a slightly different approach.
I write all my follow-ups in one huge text document at the end of every day or two during the conference, and then I send them out with an email scheduler the Monday morning after the conference. This way, I can also follow the usual advice and follow up again in two weeks if they didn’t have time to get back to me, and I get the best of both worlds.
10. Keep Follow-ups Short and Timely
Following up is an art. You want to make it easy for people to work with you. If you said you would follow up, do. The note taking process I outlined above should make this easier.
Brooke Roberts put together a course for young up-and-coming international educators. It’s called The Global Pro Institute and I had the pleasure of taking it in early 2016. She says this about cold emails: Be concise and specific -- e.g. “I’ve read a ton of your stuff, here is a specific question.”
No life stories. Be quick and useful. Aim to make your question answerable in a tweet. Brooke calls this “using your Twitter goggles.” She also suggests using a CRM tool like Insightly to make the process of following up with dozens of people a little less confusing.
Tim Ferriss, again in his podcast on conference networking, says to imagine the person you’re emailing is busy. It’s 3pm and you’re calling them. They’re in the middle of a long work day and they have important things to do before the day ends. Obviously “Hey Jim, how are you doing today?” isn’t gonna cut it.
If your email doesn’t work in that context, don’t send it.
Be persistent, but not annoying. Never expect anything, but make yourself memorable and available. If you do that, your follow-ups will go well!
11. Buffer a Few Days Before or After the Conference for Yourself
I’m from Colorado so I'm a bit biased, but seriously: leave yourself a few days before or after the conference for yourself. This will let you fit in a few extra meetings with people, and most importantly it will give you a chance to go explore!
We all got involved in international education because of our love of travel, so don’t forget to travel while you’re at NAFSA this year. Denver has so many cool things to do (Avanti, Union Station, 16th Street Mall, one of the oldest Zoos in the country, hiking up near Golden, concerts at Red Rocks -- heck even the Denver International Airport is scenic), and my hometown of Colorado Springs is just an hour away by car -- we have stuff like The Incline, the Air Force Academy, Garden of the Gods, and more. Make some time to go see Colorado, you won’t regret it.
Talk to Us
I hope these tips help you make the most of your time at NAFSA this year! If you’d like to say hi or hang out at the conference, reach out to me at @AbroadInstitute or email me at [email protected]. And of course, if you want to come meet with the Go Overseas team, pretty much all of us will be there! Drop by booth #1412 and say hi, participate in our BinGO game for a chance to win $5,000 in scholarship money, or take advantage of our NAFSA attendee discounts.
Learn more about Go Overseas at NAFSA 2016.Photo Credit: NAFSA, Tim Gouw, Alejandro Escamilla.