Virtual networking

How to network and make connections at a virtual conference

Two physician career coaches give their advice for making new networking contacts over Zoom.

With the vast majority of conferences (including OMED 2020) and similar events moving to a virtual format this year, it may feel like networking opportunities are few and far between.

But while proper Zoom etiquette and camera setups add two new wrinkles to the networking process, two physician career coaches say making connections is still possible from a distance.

In this edited Q&A, Julia Kinder, DO, founder of Physician Career Opportunities, and Heather Fork, MD, founder of Doctor’s Crossing, give their advice for making the most of a virtual networking experience.

In a virtual group setting, making individual connections can be intimidating. What’s the best way to get over that hurdle and set up a time to speak individually?

Dr. Kinder: “It’s very similar to connecting with someone on LinkedIn. You need to introduce yourself, be it via email or another digital channel, and say why you would like to connect.

“One big mistake doctors often make during networking events is talking about their board specialty and how many years they’ve been in clinical practice, and that’s it. That all runs together and sounds the same coming from every doctor.

“You need to take the opportunity to open up and show something unique about yourself. Start with something personal and be approachable.”

Dr. Fork: “There are three general principles you can follow:

  • Mention how you know about the person and what interests you about them.
  • Be specific about why you want to connect. Try to avoid saying, ‘I want to pick your brain!’ While a lot of people are happy to give you advice, this expression makes it sound like more of a one-way-street.
    • As an example, you could mention that you are intrigued by the work this person is doing, and that you’d like the chance to speak with them and ask about suggestions on how you could prepare yourself for that kind of work.
  • Let them know the best way to get in touch with you, and when you’re available.”

What is the best way to prepare to network via Zoom?

Dr. Kinder: “Practice being on camera first. Reverse the camera on your phone and film yourself having a pretend conversation, or get someone you know to carry on a conversation with you. Or write a rough script and read it. [You can also record a practice conversation through Zoom or a computer app like Photo Booth.]

“You will learn volumes just by watching yourself, and you’ll figure out the best way to present yourself.

“When you’re doing that practice video, set your stage. Practice the lighting and what people can see behind you. You want to have that environment you can go to comfortably. It doesn’t have to be extensive or over the top. Play around with different lamps in your house and see how you look best on camera. A cheap lapel mic that plugs into your phone or computer can greatly improve sound quality, too. You can find those on Amazon.”

What are some important things to keep in mind when you’re on camera?

Dr. Fork: “An easy mistake to make is looking at the person’s face on the screen, as opposed to the camera eye at the top of your laptop or computer. Looking at the camera helps them see you making good ‘eye contact.’ It’s best to have the camera a little above eye level. At a lower level, the person may be looking up your nostrils. Not super flattering!

“After that, follow the same principles you would in person, like listening actively and making some slight gestures to show that you are engaged. Just be yourself. Sit upright, but don’t be too stiff. Make sure not to lean back or be too far from or close to the camera.

“If you’re engaged in the conversation and listening to the other person, it’s likely that your body posture and responses will follow naturally and be conducive to a positive connection.”

Dr. Kinder: “Some gestures that work fine in public don’t turn out to be OK on camera.

“For example, when I’m talking with someone, I tend to physically lean in at certain parts when I’m making a point, and then lean away. I realized when I was practicing on camera that that movement appears exaggerated and distracting.

“We all have different facial expressions too, so you’re just going to have to see what works for you.”

Once you’ve made a contact and connected somehow, what do the ideal next steps look like?

Dr. Fork: “It’s always a good idea to follow up within 24 to 48 hours after a conference for two reasons: one, you will look impressive by being so organized and prompt, two, you’re much more likely to do it. Once a week or so has gone by, it’s really hard to go back and try to follow up and remember specific conversations.”

Dr. Kinder: “In the initial networking contact, it’s great if you can get something out of it. But sometimes it really is a brief introduction. Most of the time, the networking results come after the initial conversation.

“It’s just like if you met a new friend. How are you going to stay in contact? There has to be a mutual interest. It’s not just about you and what you want to get out of it. You have to remember the other person as well.”

Any final tips for effective networking?

Dr. Kinder: “For me, the most important part of networking is practicing before you ever network. When I first started networking, I would write down little scripted sentences to kick the conversation off.

“Most of us, on the fly, can’t think of anything except “Hey, how about all that rain we’ve been getting?” A script of things you can say might include ‘Just curious, where are you listening in from?’ You can plan ahead things that will lead people into a conversation.”

Dr. Fork: “In general, remember that most people are flattered when others are interested in them, and are happy to help you and network.

“Don’t talk yourself out of reaching out to someone. And if they ignore you when you do, don’t take that personally. Just reach out and give it your best effort.”

Related reading:

Should you hire a career coach?

How to navigate virtual residency interviews during COVID-19


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