Advice for the Awkward Conference-Goer
How to network and make new friends when you don’t know anyone
Sometimes I hate going to conferences.
It’s not the conferences themselves that bother me, it’s the parties afterwards. Loud, crowded parties filled with strangers.
In honor of the No Code Conference this past week, I thought I would share a few tips for those of us who want to network, but who would also chose the “Hey, I’m Awkward” sticker for their badge.
When you’re gearing up for the networking portion of the event, it’s important to have a game plan.
Know what you’re going to say about yourself.
“So what do you do for work?”
You need a short and sweet answer to this question that helps the person understand where to put you in their mind.
Help them answer the question of: What category does this person belong in?
Agency owner, freelancer, executive, founder, investor… who are you?
Keep your explanation short — you’re not hear to talk about yourself! Introduce yourself quickly, and then let the other person talk.
Have a list of people you want to talk to.
I keep a running list in my head of people that I’d like to meet at the party, people who seem interesting or potentially useful business connections.
This may seem a bit strange, but it’s better than the alternative of just floating around, hoping or wishing that you could find someone to talk to.
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road can take you there.” — the Cheshire Cat
We go to conferences to make connections right? Why not have a plan?
Scope things out.
Take a walk around the scene. Find out where your “targets” are, where the food/drinks/bathrooms are, where your friends are.
Pay attention to walkways! Don’t try to start a conversation in a busy or crowded area.
Take a deep breath, smile and introduce yourself.
It can take courage to make the first move, shake someone’s hand, and introduce yourself to a complete stranger. Sometimes I have to psych myself up for it!
Smile and look them in the eye. Sometimes I feel like I’m being extra charismatic and outgoing, more than I normally would be.
Try not to be Awkward
Playing the part of a confident person helps me BE a confident person.
Think of a few conversation starters.
If you started the conversation, think of yourself as the host. Your job is to make that person feel comfortable, and to enjoy themselves.
Don’t make a conversation awkward by not having anything to say.
Think of some things you have in common. At the very least, you’re both at the same conference. It’s possible that they’re just as nervous as you are — make a joke about that!
Be interested in what that person has to say, and try to talk more about them than you do about yourself.
Relationship is based on rapport.
I learned something from Trever Yarrish this week at the No Code conference:
Relationships are based on rapport, and rapport is based on a *shared* mutual interest.
Shared mutual interest: something that you have in common that you both know about.
If the speaker talked about Legos in their talk, let them know that you also played with Legos as a kid.
Another way to establish rapport is to tell the person how they have impacted you.
Turns out, a friend of his father’s had bought him a book about ASP.NET when he was young. This book made a big impact in his life, and he wanted to “pay it forward” to others who might be in need.
Our conversation about generosity ended up being much more interesting than if I had just talked about myself, or tried to pump him for inside information about Webflow.
Give Yourself a Break
Sometimes I feel like I’m on a “mission” to network, and that I’ll “fail” if I don’t meet enough new people or pass out enough business cards.
In the back of my mind, I’m thinking about the money I spent to get to the conference, and how I shouldn’t be wasting the valuable time that I have at the party.
The thing that I’ve found is that there’s NO WAY to control the conversations you have, who you meet, or what connections you make.
Everything I said about planning who you want to talk to may go out the window in reality.
I had a guy who just straight-up walked away, right as I was introducing myself!
It’s ok to take a break from the action. Get a snack or a drink, find a seat or stand in the corner by yourself. You’ll miss out way more if you drive yourself crazy with anxiety and pressure.
The one thing I’d add is this: try not to look at your phone. This sends a signal to others that you’re distracted or bored, and it closes you off to someone who might want to talk to you.
Conference parties can be intimidating, but armed with a smile, a strategy, and some self-confidence, it’s possible to meet some great people!
If you find yourself getting stuck, remember this line:
Well, this has been great! I’m going to step out to grab a drink…Thanks for the conversation and it was nice to meet you!