How to network at conferences without being awkward

Katie Dickinson

Big crowds at events ever make you want to do this?

Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Conferences can be intimidating. They’re large, they’re loud, you’re there with hundreds (or thousands) of strangers with whom you’re expected to mingle.

But how?

In a room full of intimidating bodies dressed to the nines carrying file folders and laptops, where everyone looks like they’re some kind of expert, you’re bound to feel at least a twinge of “wouldn’t it be better if I just went back up to my room and fell asleep for a while?” And while more sleep may be a delightful option, retreating would be a silly thing to do.

Though an extrovert by nature, I’m very aware that not everyone is as at-ease in a room full of strangers as I am, and I’ve spent a bit of time self-examining to see if there are any actions/tactics you might be able to copy-cat. A common question and concern I see in blogger/travel professional groups I’m a member of is that people are worried to go to conferences because they’re too shy or too scared or (and I cringe at this one the most) too new to really get anything out of the networking parts.

Malarky!

I do totally understand why people think networking is a scary thing. Even as a not-shy, extrovert, I do get that initial “ugghhh, do I have to?” — but ya know what? The best thing you can possibly do is to learn to push through that sensation. I have a few easy mental prep tricks and tactics you can try when you’re on the floor and getting that uneasy feeling.

Also, I’d like to call out the, um, thousands of articles on this here world wide web that offer tips like “be personable,” “practice your elevator pitch,” and “bring business cards.” LIKE, DUH! There are so many “resources” that throw basic information and expect that you’re going to hear “stay hydrated” and all of a sudden feel perfectly prepared to stroll up to Suzy from YourFavoriteSite.com or Marcus from OMG Cool Company.

This list is not that. BUT, if you get to the end and I’ve missed something that you struggle with, leave a comment and I’ll try to address it (or at least find you a helpful resource!)

Remember…

The other attendees are there for the same reason. People don’t go to conferences and large events just to walk around aimlessly. They go to make connections, meet brands, meet experts, and learn something new.

Even if they are the expert/keynote/omnipotent industry God, they were once where you are now. Don’t make the notables exceptional as an excuse to fade into the scenery. Resolve to get the most out of your time (and admission fee) at the conference.

Keep a prop on-hand

I always — always — carry a prop. It’s usually my pink sparkly travel mug or an interesting bag. Keeping a prop with you serves a few functions.

First, its disarming. No one ever said, “I was too scared to walk over to the girl with the unicorn bag.” Carefully choosing your item to be something joyful or funny will throw subtle hints into the room that you’re easygoing and approachable.

Second, it gives people something to talk to you about. Imagine you’ve got two guys in front of you and one has a Lisa Frank folder with neon space kittens and the other…. doesn’t. Its going to be a hell of a lot easier to strike up a conversation with the guy with the galactic cat prop.

Of course, knowing your audience and being able to approximate the temperature of the room will help dictate the type of prop you should bring.

Creep the name tags.

The check-in table is a great place to see the full list of attendees (some conferences also have online spaces where you can see who else is registered — places like attendee Facebook groups and networking platforms). While you’re grabbing your name badge, take a look at the other individuals and businesses present. If you do a quick Google search, you can easily learn a little about a company and prepare a few easy but relevant questions to break the ice.

If the tags are bold enough, you might be able to stealthily read the tag of someone standing nearby. I admit: I once read someone’s tag, Googled their blog, and walked up and said “omg you’re so-and-so from RandomTravelBlog!” They were super flattered and it opened up a good conversation.

NEVER open with “I”

This pairs nicely with the name tag creep move. People naturally want to talk about themselves, so get them going first. “You’re Jane Smith from SmithBlog! I love your site. I’m Katie from Weird Travel Friend. I read your post on Cosmic Cat Murals in Somecounrty… it was so great!” They’ll tell a little about that project and then probably ask about you. Boom. Connection made.

You can also walk up to a exhibitor/sponsor table and say “what a cool concept — I’d love to hear more!” or (so basic, but I’ve used it maaany times) “So tell me about what you do!” What this does is it allows them to talk for a minute or so, and allows you a chance to relax into the conversation, ask a few questions, and when its your turn to tell them about yourself, you’ll be (a) more relaxed, (b) have a bit more information about what they do and perhaps what they’re seeking, and (c) better able to cater your business to their needs. If it’s not a good match, this would be a great time to recommend someone you know that may be a good fit — and if its someone you’ve met at the conference, think of how cool you’ll look by helping facilitate that introduction!

Sponsor tables!

Sponsors and exhibitors are literally there to talk to you — meaning they’re disappointed if you don’t approach. And, being completely honest: as someone who has worked both sides of the table, approaching and striking up a conversation with the exhibitor leaves a big impression. They spend their day having to lure people in to talk to them, so the few people who make the effort to strike up a meaningful dialog (and express a genuine curiosity in what the company does and their goals for the conference) really stand out.

Sponsor tables are also a great place to slide into a conversation. Most exhibitor chats are light and stay pretty topical (like introducing who you are versus negotiating a deal on-the-spot), so you can usually stroll up and politely inject yourself into the established chatter.

Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Unsplash

Sit with someone different at lunch

It’s so tempting to seek out the friend we met during the morning coffee mingle… but try to resist that urge. I like to find a table (this works for both meals and sessions) where there are already people sitting, but maybe not chatting with one another, and ask f I can join them. It sounds simple because it is simple. It doesn’t take a whole lot to break the ice.

Most conferences have tables set up throughout the venue — be it for coffee breaks in the lobby or places for attendees to perch between sessions. Find a table and “look for something in your bag” (“Can I use this spot for a sec? Ugh… I have all my business cards but they’re at the bottom of my bag… the struggles of a conference-goer! haha”). If they’re not deep into their own work, introduce yourself. OR creep their name tag and strike up from there!

Some conferences also have activities for people who arrive early. Participate. You won’t have to worry about “what if people already know each other” because at that early stage, they probably won’t. Make some friends before the event is in full-swing.

Don’t memorize a pitch

Controversial, I know.While I do believe that knowing how to clearly articulate who you are and what you do is important, memorizing one pitch is a bad idea. Have some bullet points to bring out and use whichever feel the most natural in the specific context of the conversation you’ve found yourself in. I’m not going to describe my site the same to a luxury travel blogger as I am a sustainable travel company. Both would lose interest if I did that.

I might tell the luxe blogger that “I focus largely on budget friendly travel with an emphasis on seeing cities on foot. BUT I do like to throw in a few more fancy items from time to time and am totally looking for a bougie place to have tea in London — any ideas?” While the sustainability folks might get the same intro, but with a “I love being as eco-friendly while traveling! Reusable bags and stainless steel straws are always on my packing list. What type of eco-tours do you run?”

See what I mean? Having a sentence that describes your business is fantastic, but reading your audience and catering the remainder of your spiel to their niche, needs, or interests will help build better relationships and keep the conversation going.

Its ok to take a break!

When you feel yourself burning out, step away for a few minutes. Conferences are draining. Take a few extra minutes after lunch to sit in a quiet spot to Snapchat your friends — or (and I’ve done this, too) lock yourself in a bathroom stall and just enjoy the quiet.

Social + pre-conference

Many conferences have a hashtag or an attendee platform where you can check the list of people and companies that will be there. Don’t ignore those platforms! Follow the tag and interact before you go. When someone Tweets they’re excited for WhateverConference, reply that you’re excited, too and can’t wait to connect in person.

Putting in that little bit of leg work before you go (especially if you have a lot of lead time) can go really far in making your name, face, and brand as recognizable as possible.

Imagine this: you’ve done the work, you’ve made connections on social (from the comfort of your own couch), you walk in with your prop, creep the name tags on the sign-in table, and before you even clip yours on… Amanda from WeMetonTwitter comes up and says, “I love your laptop case! You’re Wonderful Person-Readingthis… we connected on Twitter! So nice to finally meet you!” Sounds pretty sweet, eh?

I really hope that I’ve given you some ideas or little tricks to beat that pre-conference anxiety.

Don’t forget that you chose to go to that conference to get something out of it (be it connections or learning). Don’t let that little twinge of fear stand in the way of your goals.

And fellow non-shy, extroverts out there who have made it this far: I’m putting some of this on you! If you see someone who might be a little unsure or uneasy, go out of your way to be kind and start a conversation. I mean don’t be aggressive or overbearing (because lets be real, we can be terrifying), but… you know what I mean!

+ If I missed anything, leave me a comment below!
+ If you found any new tips, let me know which was your favorite!
+ If you need help with sample dialogue fit for you, I can help with that, too!

Katie Dickinson

Written by

WTF 🌏 Katie — Enthusiast of many things. Travel blogger, marketing fan, food obsesser. Alias: @WeirdTrvlFriend

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