The concept is straightforward: Find someone you don’t know at the conference cocktail reception and strike up business-related small talk. But as most people will admit, networking is not easy. And I’ll admit it. I’m kind of shy—which makes it that much more difficult. Even managing a simple handshake can be a challenge when you’ve got one hand on your drink and the other balancing a plate of food. And don’t get me started on how I’m also supposed to find a third arm to pull out a business card.

So when the opportunity presented itself to attend a “speed networking” session on day one of last week’s West Coast Medical Device and Bio/Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, I was curious. Co-sponsored by Medical Meetings and the Center for Business Intelligence, the conference was held at the Manchester Grand Hyatt in San Diego.

Speed networking, it turns out, is similar to speed dating, where potential mates meet in a low-pressure environment to chat for a few minutes before rotating to the next seat. The difference is that in speed dating your goal is to narrow down the playing field of possible matches, while the goal of speed networking is simply to add to your network. Already speed networking had an edge in my book: no fear of rejection!

The hour-long session, moderated by Cris Canning, CMP, head investigator for event marketing and consulting firm Hospitality Ink, San Diego, began with about 50 attendees taking seats across from one another at long tables arranged in a horseshoe. Canning then instructed us to develop a 30-second “elevator pitch,” explaining exactly what we do and why our partner across the table might want to know about our work.

Once the networking began, the “pitches” actually took on a more natural, conversational flow as pairs of attendees introduced themselves, swapped business cards, and chatted about how each could help the other. After a couple of minutes, Canning, sounded her (very shrill) whistle and instructed those seated in the inner circle to rotate one seat to the right, and the whole thing started again.

While two or three minutes is not enough time to develop a real relationship with someone, it certainly broke the ice at the beginning of the conference. I know I talked with a slew of people I might otherwise never have met. The consensus among other participants was overwhelmingly positive as well. “This is great,” said one attendee seated next to me. “Usually at networking events, my first inclination is to head straight to the bar, but this really took the pressure off.” Ah … another fellow networking-phobe cured!

A speed networking session will also be featured at the www.pharmameetingplanners.com Fifth Annual Pharmaceutical Meeting Management Forum, March 29-31, 2009, at the Baltimore Convention Center. Other new features for the 2009 forum include special sessions addressing healthcare convention management, medical device meetings, copromotion meetings, and incentive travel. During an executive think tank, industry leaders will develop best practices on hot issues.

Early-bird rates are available until December 23. Visit www.pharmameetingplanners.com for more info.