I recently attended THAT Conference in the Wisconsin Dells and had a wonderful experience. It was my first time attending, and I was giving my talk ‘How to talk technical without talking technical.’ Most people who meet me at events like this wouldn’t expect to find out that I’m an introvert at heart, but I totally am. I’ve found a few tricks that work for me that I would like to share to make conference experiences people-focused and fun.
As a side note, introversion/extraversion has nothing to do with whether you enjoy being around people, it’s about what energizes you. Introverts tend to use a lot of energy socializing and need to recharge their batteries with solitude.
1. Be welcoming
We all know how difficult it can be to walk up to a group that is already in conversation and feel like you’re intruding. Remember that feeling and pay it forward. When you see someone hovering (most often a sign of nerves) or looking a little lost, widen your circle and invite them in. If the conversation is in a good place to stop for introductions, start by introducing yourself and the people in your group. A trick that can help you and everyone remember each other—as well as make connections—is to associate a small fact with each person.
This is Bruce. He’s leading an Open Space tomorrow about coding after 50.
This is Phil. He was just telling me about this cute podcast he listens to with his daughter while they brush their teeth.
It doesn’t have to be anything big. And #real-talk, I usually remember the fact about someone but completely forget their name. It happens 🤷♀️ Don’t be afraid to rely on the conference name badges. It might feel awkward to you, but it happens to everyone and you’re meeting tens of new people every day (hundreds if you’re working a booth). Everyone is very understanding, and they’re probably in the same boat you are.
2. Be early to meals and sit at an empty table
This might be my favorite “hack” that I’ve come up with. I find it very easy to invite people to sit with me and to be welcoming (see tip #1) but find it really hard to walk up to a table of people already eating and chatting. So get to meals early, fill your plate, and find an empty or almost empty table. As people walk by, they’ll naturally ask to join you and if they don’t, it’s pretty easy to invite them to. An added bonus with this tip is that the food is usually still warm 🙂
As hard as it is, when you sit down to a table alone, you need to stay off your phone. It can feel weird to sit and eat without doing anything else, but you want to be approachable for others to want to come join you. Introduce yourself and then ask questions. Asking about favorite sessions or what they’re most looking forward to are easy ways to let the conversation steer itself.
If you’re not an early bird (being early to breakfast can be hard!), my tip is to avoid tables of co-workers if you can. And if you came to the conference with a bunch of co-workers, be aware of your mealtime conversations if you have others join your group. There’s nothing worse than sitting quiet for the whole meal because a group is commiserating over that last thing that happened at work before they came to the conference.
3. Send a message to people you know at the conference
If you know people who are also attending the conference, don’t be afraid to reach out the day before or the morning of to say that you hope they have a good conference and you look forward to finding time to catch up. While we’re all there to meet people and network, we can't forget to strengthen the connections we already have.
4. Use lines to your advantage
There are a lot of lines at conferences: registration lines, food lines, bathroom lines (there’s a joke in here about being a woman at a tech conference…). Don’t be afraid to use the time standing in line to make connections. Chat with the person in front or behind you about their conference experience. If you’re waiting to get into the keynote, you may find someone to sit with or someone who is looking forward to the same sessions as you. People are often grateful to have something to do while standing in line and are happy to chat with you. This is one of the least awkward situations in which to strike up a conversation with a stranger.
5. Chat up the sponsors
The sponsors have a rough few days ahead of them. They have to talk to hundreds of people who really just want to come up and get their badge scanned to enter whatever contest the sponsor is hosting. They miss a lot of the sessions and content they’re interested in because they have to work at their booth. This time isn’t time off of work for them; this is more work. Make sure to ask them how they’re doing and have a genuine conversation. You never know what connection you’ll make, even if its not about their product.
At THAT Conference, I had a lovely conversation with a woman who wanted to give a talk at next year’s conference. We talked about the CFP process and some of the more successful talks I had seen. I also had a conversation with a sponsor where they asked what I was speaking about and then promised to recommend my talk to other people who came up to their booth. They even had me circle it in their program so they wouldn’t forget. Nothing settles a speaker’s anxiety like knowing that others are supporting you and encouraging people to come see you.
6. Don’t be disruptive to speakers
We’ve all been there when we’re sitting in a session and realize that it’s not quite what we thought it was, so we leave to go listen to a different talk. That’s perfectly normal and at some conferences, like THAT Conference, even encouraged. But if you know that you tend to be this person, I beg you to sit near the edges. It can be really disruptive to both the speaker and other attendees when someone tries to make their way from the center of the audience to the door with their backpack 15 minutes into the talk. And as a speaker, the more disruptive and noticeable it is, the longer it pulls your attention away from the stellar talk you’re trying to give.
7. Pay attention to where the organizers hang out
I can’t take credit for this tip. Another speaker shared this with me, and it’s gold. Often, conference organizers are recognizable by the clothes they’re wearing. Try to pay attention to where they cluster together during the common activities such as meals and key notes. They know where the lines are shortest and where the quickest, easiest exits are.
For example at THAT Conference, the dinner meals were set up in the hallways around the main hall. If you paid attention, the organizers all used the food lines on the far side of the hall and sat over there as opposed to most attendees who went to the closest but longest food line.
8. Show gratitude
Tell the organizers how much you’re enjoying the conference and recognize all the hard work they put in.
Tell a speaker how much you enjoyed their talk and what specific bits resonated with you.
Thank a fellow attendee who you had a great conversation with and be genuine about how nice it was to meet them.
Thank the bartender who is still smiling after dealing with hundreds of people, drink tickets, and little tips.
It takes a lot of effort to put on a good conference and all of that effort deserves to be recognized. Share the love and let others know that you see them and all of their hard work.
9. Connect after the conference
Don’t let all of the new connections you made during the conference wither when it’s over. Connect over social media, join the conference community (newsletter, Slack, etc), or just exchange emails. You just had a great few days filled with interesting and enlightening conversations. Keep them going!