Game Developers Conference Europe 2015 — Cologne. Photo: Dennis Stachel/GDC Europe

The Art of the Conference

10 tips for networking, learning, and being inspired

This story originally appeared on my blog on March 12, 2010 and has been edited slightly for modern times.

I’ve just wrapped up my third GDC conference. I learned loads from it and feel incredibly rejuvenated creatively! I wanted to take a moment to share some guidelines I’ve found helpful for getting the most out of conferences. Here’s a top ten list of tips for making the most of it.

By the way, even though I attend conferences for programmers, I believe these guidelines are good for any conference attendee.

1. Talk to people

When you break it down, the whole reason to go to conferences is to talk to people. Attending sessions is good too but I tend to find satisfaction from them only about half the time. Meeting and talking to people in my industry is really why I go.

Don’t be surprised if people aren’t rushing up to talk to you, especially if you’re attending a conference with lots of programmers. You will have to make an effort to approach people and start the dialogue. You don’t have to be clever or flashy. You can literally just walk up to a stranger and say “Hi. My name is Mims. How’s it going?” and you’re doing it.

I also highly recommend speaking to the conference presenters if you have a question for them. Conferences can be a unique opportunity for you to have some face time with these inspirational people so be bold and introduce yourself!

2. Know your story

You’re going to get a lot of chances to tell people about yourself, your company, and your work so make sure you know what you’re going to say when someone asks you. There’s a good chance that you’ll be speaking to your industry heroes which can feel very intimidating. Know your own story and be able to communicate it concisely and confidently even if in you’re head you’re thinking “I’m not as cool as everyone else here.” Keep it short and positive.

3. Be interesting

In other words, have good conversation skills. Of course, this is easier said than done for most people. Here are a couple of little tricks that can help you to be more interesting.

Focus on being interest-ed, not interest-ing. Aside from telling your story, ask them about their story. It’s mysterious but true, asking people about themselves makes you seem more interesting! Furthermore, someone wiser than me once said that if you want to find success, ask your clients what’s keeping them up at night then tailor your service to help them solve the problem. Asking about what’s been inspiring them at the conference is good too because it’s usually something they’re excited to discuss.

Also, don’t talk forever, just say “Hey, great meeting you. I’ll check out your stuff.” and you’re done. You don’t have to wait for an awkward silence, you can end it on a high note.

4. Bring lots of business cards

Your card reminds the people you talk to of the conversation you had with them and tells them how to find out more about you. That’s really it. You can make really flashy, expensive cards but printing them on your inkjet works just as well in my opinion. What doesn’t work is when you don’t have one. They’ll go faster than you think so bring a bunch.

Also, when you trade cards, you can write a note on the back of your card about the project you discussed and do the same for yourself when you receive a card from them.

5. Not a vacation

It can be tempting to get drunk every night, or blow off sessions, or even to see some sights while you’re away at a conference. I’m not saying you shouldn’t have fun and I’m definitely not saying you shouldn’t have drinks with your industry colleagues. Just remember that you (or your company) are paying a lot for you to be there and every minute is an opportunity to learn something or make a connection with a new client, employee or friend.

6. Do some research about the speakers and their topics

Obviously, it’s a good idea to review the schedule to see which sessions you may want to attend. It can also be good to do a quick background check on the companies that will be speaking. A quick visit to their website will do usually and you may discover that they did some work you really admire. Chances are, they did or they wouldn’t be speaking. If the schedule is too overwhelming, you can always bring the program home and research retroactively.

7. If a talk is bad, it’s okay to leave

Unless it would be an obvious or odious disturbance to the session, there’s no rule that says you have to sit through a boring or irrelevant session. Duck out respectfully and go into another session or just mingle in the hallway.

8. Attend some sessions that aren’t targeted at you

I’ve found that some of the most interesting talks at conferences are ones aimed at other jobs. It’s eye-opening to see what business-people, project managers, and programmers from other languages are talking about.

9. Reach out on social media

Note, at the time of writing, Twitter was not the ubiquitous platform it is today, so this advice may seem a bit obvious in 2015.

Like it or not, at a conference, Twitter is the little bird that tells you what’s happening all around you — what talks are worth attending, what news is being announced, where the party is at, and who you need to talk to. Using and watching hashtags suddenly makes your tweets visible to people who otherwise wouldn’t see you and vice versa. I meet lots of strangers through twitter at conferences. For example, this year I had lunch with the cool dudes at Tribal Games who I met simply because they tweeted “going to lunch, who wants to go?” An icon that shows your face helps too — I recognize a lot of people from their icons! Finally, if you don’t have separate accounts, try not to tweet about your personal life at the conference.

10. Don’t waste the momentum

You’re going to meet people, see new things, and be inspired on multiple fronts. When you get home, do something with all of that good energy immediately. If you just go back to your routine of clients, meetings and daily bullshit, it’s going to go away.