As an introvert, talking to a bunch of people who I just met and engaging in small talk can be a bit daunting.
Sometimes, just the thought of “networking” at a conference or event has me thinking about skipping it in favor of cozy sweatpants, Netflix and maybe following along from the event hashtag.
Fortunately, I’ve learned some tips over the past few years for how to get more out of the experience and not be the “quiet one on her phone in the corner.”
Connect With Attendees Beforehand
Maybe, it is my Type A personality? One of the things that’s most useful for me is to check out the conference hashtag and attendee list before the event. Some events even have designated Slack channels or Facebook groups for attendees.
I’ve found this to be a great icebreaker and an easier way to start a conversation with people beforehand. Even if you know no one at the event IRL, you’ll still have few Internet buddies. 🙂
At least for me, this helps me get more excited about going an event instead of dreading it.
Pro Tip: If you plan on traveling to another city for an event, search your Facebook friends and LinkedIn contacts for people in that city. Likewise, take a look if any of these friends will be at the conference. This is a great time to reconnect.
Use the Conference Hashtag to Live-Tweet Panels and Keynotes
This tip might come off a bit strange to people.
Why on earth am I telling everyone to spend even more time on their laptop, iPad, smartphone, etc., instead of socializing?
Here’s the secret: if you start live-tweeting panels, people will take notice.
For starters, you are adding value. You are also keeping a digital record of that talk or panel that you can then reference at anytime. (Hint, hint: The livetweet transcript makes an excellent blog post). On top of that, you are also making it easy for both conference and non-conference attendees to follow all the action.
I can’t tell you how many times people have come up and found me after I live-tweeted a session at a conference. It can be a great initial icebreaker.
Embrace the Chaos
I know this may seem counterintuitive. But, have a plan going into the conference, but don’t be afraid to throw it out the window.
With pretty much every conference recording their talks these days, you can catch any action you’ve missed. The real value is in the relationships you can make at an event. So, if that means sacrificing a panel to keep chatting with a new connection, so be it.
Reconnect with Internet buddies
“I don’t attend many conferences because I almost always walk away feeling like it was a waste of time and money. I am NOT the guy shaking hands with dozens of strangers and becoming fast friends — I just don’t have this in me,” says Josh Garofalo.
“However, one thing I do use conferences for is meeting face to face with my internet pals in places I want to visit anyway. For example, I recently went to SaaS North in Ottawa and met with Wes Bush, Ramli John, Kamil Rextin, and Muhammed Asaduallah. And a few years back, I met with Joel Klettke for the first time after teaming up on the HubSpot project that put us on the map, with Lianna Patch, Jessica Mehring, Momoko Price, James Turner and others.
I learn little from most talks. I rarely walk away with new contacts. I almost always become closer with a few people I know already, and this can be worth the price of admission because businesses like ours are built on the backs of a tight network.”
Take Breaks for One-to-One Meetings
On the tails of Josh’s advice for building a network comes some sound tips from Kaleigh Moore.
“At conferences, I don’t beat myself up about attending every session. I take a break when I need to and often opt out of certain talks to take a coffee break or a long lunch where I can catch up with a speaker or fellow attendee—because that’s often so much more valuable than sitting silently while listening to a speaker,” says Kaleigh. “The one-to-ones are the main reason I even go to a conference, so I make sure that those meetings take priority over everything.”
Shannon Hennig adds, “When I go to a conference I like to set up an advance plan for who I want to meet. Whether it’s a speaker, vendor, client or new contact, going in with an idea of who I want to connect with helps to take away feelings of uncertainty. It puts you in a position where you can be action-oriented, instead of awkwardly standing by the water station, commenting on the weather.”
PRotect your energy
“I’m frequently the quiet person on their phone in the corner,” Rachael Pilcher. “I find large groups of people overwhelming, but especially in a conference setting where you really need to push yourself to talk to the people you came to see in the first place, and you’re spending a lot of time interacting with strangers. I had to go and have a quick lie down a couple of times to decompress in between sessions last year.”
But, in the midst of taking some moments for herself, Rachael learned some priceless tips for how to prepare prior to the conference.
“Make sure you get a good sleep, and eat properly beforehand to keep your energy up during the day – they are long days! I also always try to carry something like a glass of water or cup of coffee – it makes me feel more relaxed.”
Lianna Patch says, “Recently I’ve been paying more attention to the idea of having a limited amount of what I call social capital. I decide when and how to spend it at events, and let myself off the hook for missing things or leaving parties earlier. It’s about the long game, especially when conferences are 3 days or more!”
Margo Aaron adds, “Turns out I’d confused ‘not being shy’ with extroversion and was maxing myself out at events. So here’s what I do. I lock myself in the hotel room. I actually spend a tremendous amount of time alone at conferences. I skip events. I don’t go out of my way to introduce myself to people, especially if I’m speaking at it. But even if I’m just an attendee: I protect my energy.
Sometimes we can get so caught up in what we think we need to be doing in the moment, we miss out on everything we attended the conference for in the first place. Try going with the flow instead.
The mindset I go in with is: if it’s meant to be, it will be. Which is weird and woo-woo but hear me out. A wise man once told me that I should focus on having quality conversations with 3-5 people. If I could pull that off, that was worth more than 100 business cards. Staring at my stack of business cards from people I’d never heard from (or heard back from), I knew he was right. And, it’s proven to be the best thing I’ve ever done.
So now, I talk to people sitting next to me at sessions or in line for the bathroom or food. Places where conversation can happen nicely instead of forced. And this approach made me feel less anxious because I didn’t have FOMO from not doing ALL THE THINGS.
I do some of the things. Making myself too available eats at my soul and I can’t do good work, good speaking, or even listen well if I’m maxed out. So I protect my energy by avoiding (most) people at conferences, so I can give 100% to the few I do get the pleasure of meeting.”
Talk to People Outside of Your Comfort Zone
If you followed the previous tips for connecting with attendees or tightening your existing network prior to the event, this tip might throw you for a loop.
“You have to talk to people you don’t know at conferences,” says Val Geisler. “As an introvert, I know this is hard, but why do all of that traveling and spending time away from your couch, er, business, if you don’t network! It’s the best part of conferences.”
Her advice for fellow introverts trying to branch out is simple.
“Try to find a talk or two that you’re willing to miss and see if you can grab someone for a coffee during that time,” she says. “You might need to do some planning ahead of time to be sure that person will be at the conference but you can also just be open to it. At my very first conference I spent a session sitting outside having an in-depth conversation with a business owner who is still a friend and referral partner to this day. So get out of your comfort zone and talk to people!”
Be a Superconnector
Once you’re already on a roll making new connections, consider taking a page out of superconnector, Joel Klettke’s playbook to make your experience even better.
“Become a connector. You’d be amazed how much easier it becomes to connect with people when you take a sort of ‘snowball’ approach,” says Joel.
“As you meet people—or if you know even just one or two others at the event—make a point to connect them to each other. ‘Have you met __?’ is a really simple conversation starter and pulls new voices into conversations, easing the burden on you to do it all solo.
What’s more, people appreciate you taking on the social burden of helping THEM meet people, so they often return the favor.”
Make yourself approachable
You might be wondering how some people just act like magnets during conferences, drawing a bunch of new connections. The secret lies in being approachable.
“One thing I’ve found to be really helpful is to make myself look as approachable as possible, that way I don’t have to do any of the scary walking up to people bits. Putting my phone (and headphones) away has been a big one for that,” says Eman Zabi. “If people see you on your phone, they assume you’re busy. If you see that you’re open to a conversation, they’ll likely start one.”
But what if the ball is in your court, and you must initiate the conversation?
“If I feel like I have to start a conversation, I look for something to compliment,” says Eman. “That usually starts things off on a good note.”
Sit in the front row
“I know the feeling,” says Andy Crestodina. “You may not want to commit 100% to that session.
What if it stinks and you want to sneak out early?
What if you need to step out to take a call?
Why not just sit in back?
Sitting up front is better in so many ways:
It makes the speaker feel grateful, which will give you an edge when you want to network/collaborate with them later.
You’ll get better notes and social content because you can’t easily take pictures of slides and speakers from the back.
You’ll get more value by paying closer attention because you’re less likely to scroll Instagram if the speaker is right in front of you.
You’ll meet overachievers, and they’re great to have in your network. There are usually a few empty seats.”
In short, it is all about showing up, learning new things, meeting new people (and catching up with old friends) and having a little fun.