People talking in a public space

It's a stereotype that Americans are loud, crass, and pushy. I'm not sure how accurate this is, but I have noticed that my American upbringing can occasionally give me an advantage over my (more reticent) British friends.

This is particularly useful when it comes to networking at conferences and other work events. Where my British co-workers might fear to tread, I have absolutely no problems in introducing myself to complete and utter strangers. Are they talking to someone else? Stuffing their face at the buffet table? Not a problem. In my crass American way, I am straight in there to do a little bit of (what a friend once called) "conferencing".

If you're a bit shy and retiring, then prepare to cast off your emotional shackles. Today, I'm going to share a few tips gleaned from my own experience so that you too can be an expert "conferencer".

Choose your moment

Step 1 is to catch the person that you want to speak to. This can be difficult, especially if you want to chat with one of the speakers. In particular, keynote speakers are normally in high demand. With a little bit of patience and persistence, you'll eventually find the right moment.

  • Be patient. Keep an eye on the room and check regularly to see whether they are available. It may take a while, so don't be discouraged.
  • Take advantage of breaks for refreshment and networking - this is usually the best time. Locations like the food table or at the bathroom sinks can be good, as they are unlikely to be speaking to anyone else.
  • If you can't find a time when they aren't speaking to someone else, get in line. Stand off to one side (but within their line of vision) to show that you are interested in talking to them. Usually, the other person will be aware that speakers are in high demand and won't be offended at the intrusion.
  • You may be able to contact them later using the contact details from the conference website (normally available for speakers). Be aware that you are more likely to get an answer in person than you are when contacting them through Twitter or email.

Overall, be respectful. There is no need to hover obnoxiously, but approaching someone and waiting patiently is fine.

Be brief

When you do manage to find the person that you want to talk to, acknowledge the fact that you are taking up some of their time. You may not have more than a few minutes to speak to them. Be brief, and get in what you want to say.

  • Come prepared with a question. This shows that you respect their time and don't want to waste it unnecessarily. Julia Evans has a great guide to asking good questions which outlines strategies for this.
  • Stay on topic. You may only have a short period to speak to them, so stick to the points that you want to discuss.
  • Once you've asked your questions, assess whether this is a good time to talk more. Are other people waiting? Does the other person look like they need to dash off? Check in before deciding to hang around for a chat.
  • After you've finished speaking, thank them for their time and move away to allow someone else to come over.

Get the deets

Once you've gotten a chance to speak to someone, take note of the details for later. Conferences can be a great time to meet and learn from the experts - make sure you don't miss anything!

  • Bring pen and paper to scribble down quick notes. You don't want to be scrambling to turn on your laptop if you only have a few minutes to talk to someone.
  • Consider asking for their contact details to follow up. This is best done when you have a defined question or topic to discuss with them. For example: "I'd really like to talk to you more about X, but I don't want to take up all your time just now. Can I get your email address and contact you later?"
  • Bring business cards with you (if you have them). Although cards can seem a bit archaic, they are still a great way to quickly swap info. If your employer won't provide you with cards, you can still make up your own with your personal contact details. Many print-on-demand services like MOO will offer templates that you can use.

No need to fear

Although it can be a bit nerve-racking to approach a total stranger, shake off the fear that you are being rude. Conferences were made for networking, so most of the other attendees will be there for the same reason.

  • Find a connection with someone else by checking their name tag to see where they work. This is an easy way to strike up a conversation ("Oh, I see you work for X - what's that like?").
  • Most conferences will organise social events around the conference (pub quiz, drinks night, etc.) which are specifically designed for networking. Take advantage of this. Speakers attend the social events, so it's a good time to chat informally.
  • Everyone likes to be appreciated. If you really enjoyed someone's talk, go over and tell them! I've never once had a speaker be rude to me or act like I was wasting their time.

Over the years, I have made some amazing connections and met people who were at the top of their field. This is part of the magic of conferences. Work up the courage to go over and start a conversation - I guarantee it will pay off.

© 2019 by Marissa Warner-Wu. All rights reserved.

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