Sometimes, I think the hardest part of going to conferences is the unstructured time – lunches and happy hours and sponsored parties. That’s the time I remember I’m surrounded by 2,445 total strangers. And I’m supposed to be networking with them. If I think too much about this, I end up at “what do I even do with my face?”
The goal is not really “networking” in whatever negative way you’re thinking of. The goal is finding interesting people and showing them that they have neat things going on.
It turns out that conferences are full of people who are alone or nearly alone. If you came as part of a team, or you are working the conference, the social stuff is different, but if you are alone, here are some things I do.
I have fuschia hair that I wear in a variety of short, eye-catching ways. Since I’m almost six feet tall, I’m really easy to find in a crowd. You don’t have to make quite so striking a personal style statement, but it’s useful to have people able to find you because you’re wearing a tophat, or orange sneakers, or all safety orange, or whatever it is you decide on. Your conference friends, the people you have met at other conferences, will recognize it. Strangers will see you on stage and note the thing about you so they can find you to ask questions later. And if you make it something less permanent than hair color, you can not wear it and totally blend into the crowd.
Make a friend in the registration line
Odds are, you’ll be standing here a few minutes. This is a great time to turn to the person next to you and ask them their name, and what they’re here to see, and what they’re looking forward to going to. Not, like, all at once. Then you sound like a teacher asking about a book report, but as conversational starters. Is this your first year here? If you’ve been before, is there some local food I can’t miss? For the rest of the conference, you’ll probably be able to spot that one person you met early on and give them a friendly nod. And if you’re very lucky, the name on their badge will be readable.
Sidenote: The minute I get any standard-length lanyard, I tie a knot in the back of it so that it hangs higher on my body. Now people looking for my name don’t have to track their eyes past my cleavage. This is a habit I picked up several years ago, and I think that having your name as close as is comfortable and feasible to your face is a win.
Go to other people’s talks
It’s super tempting to hide in your hotel room frantically preparing for your talk. I’ve been there. But I also know that a large part of the value exchange in this conference is that it consts money to attend and I’m not paying anything. So I try to go to a talk in as many slots as possible. I might take the slot before my talk off, and sometimes, depending on how drained I am, the slot after. But mostly I really want to go to people’s talks. It may seem odd, since I don’t have power over any servers, I code in no languages, and I only nominally work in teams, but I still get a lot of value out of conference talks. The technical ones help me keep a finger on the technology zeitgeist. The people-oriented ones always teach me something, because being a consultant is both managing up and sideways.
I always livetweet the talks I go to, but that’s for a different post. Mostly what I want out of going to other people’s talks is an understanding of a technology or application of technology, and to have attended the same conference as other people. At a multi-track conference, it’s easy to go to different conferences in the same venue, depending on your interests, but if you go to talks, you’ll always be able to ask what other people went to, what they thought, and then respond with what you learned or wanted to argue about from the talk you watched. “What talk did you get the most out of today” is a lovely, neutral question and sparks a lot of conversation.
Remember the theory of paradoxical popularity, or charismatic loneliness
I’m sure there is an actual psychological term for this, but lazy googling did not find it. Did you know that the prettiest girl in a high school gets asked on fewer dates than an average-looking girl? Did you know a lot of people that you think of as important, or influential, or famous, eat conference dinners alone?
That may be by choice — there’s a lot of people energy involved in giving a talk and then doing the networking afterwards, so if a person wants to eat alone, let them. But I’ve noticed that people I think of as amazing sparkling wonderful stars in this context are eating alone. I think we are all valuing their time as too precious for us, and not even asking, a kind of low-level excessive politeness. I’m not saying you should ask more than once, but it’s probably ok to say, “Hey, I really admire what you’re doing, I’d like to talk about it more, do you have someone sitting with you at lunch?”
Talk to the sponsors
These people are sitting at the vendor booths, handing out swag and trying to get a badge scan off you beacuse someone is juding them on this back home. If you do want something on their table, walk up, make eye contact, and ask for it, don’t just grab. If they’re busy talking to someone, spend a minute or two listening to the pitch. You may not be a person in the market to buy things now, but it never hurts to treat the people who make conferences happen well.
The same goes for organizers. They seldom get to see the conference, because they’re making it happen. The have worked months on this, and whether they’re paid or unpaid, they are on constant alert for Something Going Wrong. It’s really stressful! So if your organizer stops and asks you how it’s going, or if you have what you need, remember to say thank you before you start in with a complaint.
I got this one from Eric Holscher at Write the Docs. We tend to naturally form a circle when we’re standing around talking about a topic. It takes a special kind of courage to approach a ring of backs. Instead, as you’re standing in the ring, open up space between you and a neighbor to leave room for a new person to slip in and add to the conversation. You’ll be surprised by how much difference this little bit of body language makes in making your informal conversations more interesting and varied.
The best way to love a conference is to be part of it. Not every conference offers this opportunity, but if you can volunteer, you should consider it. Having a set role makes it easy to interact with people. “Here’s your badge and your t-shirt. Have a great conference!”. You’ll also get to know other volunteers and organizers, as there’s almost always a backstage that attendees don’t see. This is where I have had some pretty amazing conversations over the years.
I have a gallon bag of stickers that I carry from conference to conference. People take some, I collect some from tables and people and vendors. The stickers come with stories and then I can re-tell the stories at the next conference. Much like doing a jigsaw puzzle, sorting through a pile of stickers encourages people to stand around and have an idle conversation without feeling tense or anxious. I’m sure if everyone did it, it wouldn’t be novel, but even if you have one type of sticker, from your employer or personal brand, it’s still something to talk about and enjoy together.
On the topic of business cards
Spend money on business cards. I know it seems like an antiquity in the age of tap-contact-swaps, but there’s something about the tactile delight of a good business card that makes people comment on them and remember you. Mine are especially bright, with a plasticky finish. The back of the cards more-or-less matches the color of my hair, which serves as a good mnemonic. I get mine from Moo, which means I can have the fronts different designs — I’ve used this to put 5 or 6 witty tech writer slogans on the front, and I happen to know that people will pin them to cube walls because they’re funny, bright decoration. There is no higher state of winning than having your business hard pinned to a cube wall. In contrast, printing yourself or using a cheap printing service means you’re handing out something that feels disposable, so people do dispose of it.
If you have to hand out your company cards, that’s what you’ve got, but consider if there’s some other personal branding that would feel natural and satisfying to you. At my last conference, I gave away tiny (1/4 inch) hedgehog stickers for people to put on their badges as an indicator that they’d met me. Spontaneous fan club! Or something.
Done talking now
One of the hardest things I had to learn was how to end a conversation gracefully. I almost always start by thanking someone for their time/insight/advice. Then I say something like:
- I’m off to the next talk! Catch you later.
- I need to make a call.
- I’m meeting someone in a few.
- I’ve gotta go do a thing.
I know – a thing? But it works.
If you think of conference conversations as purely utilitarian, they will be difficult and dry. Instead, think of them as a way to learn a new and interesting thing from everyone. Good luck out there!
O'Reilly Software Architecture/Velocity
The Lead Developer London