I’ve attended and spoken at conferences. I’ve participated in great sessions and made meaningful connections. And I’ve had terrible times where I go to useless sessions and meet no one. I empathized with this Twitter thread about going to a conference where you know no one.
I don’t think there’s a right answer for everyone or every conference. Here are some things that I’ve found helpful in surviving really intense days full of strangers:
Listen to these smarty pants.
Other people have a lot more public speaking and networking under their belts than I have. Benefit from it. Rob Lambert wrote The Blazingly Simple Guide to Surviving a Conference. It’s directed at speakers, but it’s useful for any conference attendee. How To Win Friends and Influence People has more advice about connecting with people quickly without seeming sleazy.
Connect with people ahead of time.
Let people know you’re going to the conference. Tell people which sessions you’re speaking at or attending so they can find you. Write to people who’ve said they’re going. Tell them you’re excited to see or meet them. Find out which speakers they think are valuable so you end up in better sessions.
Take a day off before the conference.
Get enough sleep. Get the lay of the land. Give yourself a chance to distance yourself from the minutiae of your work inbox. Don’t talk to anyone for a day so you’re itching to jump into conversations when you arrive. Think about what you’re struggling with at work and how the people you’re about to meet might help you solve it. I spent one conference asking almost everyone I met “Can you think of a way to have a computer tell if a live audio stream is playing a radio show or an ad?” No one did, but even that was helpful information.
This has been the luckiest and most fruitful thing for me at conferences: people adopt me. People who saw me ask a good question. People who noticed I was rolling my eyes. People who saw a speaker be mean to me. People who spent a whole day with me in a tutorial. (I’m looking at you Claire Moss, Diana Wendruff, Martin Hynie, Lars Sjödahl.) They found me during breaks and introduced me to the brilliant people they knew.
Find people at a meal.
People respond to flattery. If you approach a speaker at lunch and say something like “Hi, I’m Elizabeth. I was just in your session about [whatever] and [this thing] really resonated with me. May I sit here?” most speakers will say yes. They’re already seated and eating, and you’ve made it clear that you were listening and impacted by what they said. You can also join a group that already seems to know each other. Try just listening. You may find out which sessions they’re attending, blogs they’re reading, or build up the courage to ask which bar they’re heading to later.
Use Twitter to find after-hours conferring.
When the conference is in a city or spread over a wider location, physically finding people can be harder. Check out the Twitter hashtag for the conference. Find someone you’d like to speak with again and check out their Tweets & Replies tab. This works especially well at Twitter-heavy conferences like TestBash and CAST. (Note: As a young lady, I don’t think I’m perceived as a creepy stalker. I’m not sure this would be the case for everyone.)
Write about the people you met.
Let people know that you enjoyed connecting with them, or follow-up with people you couldn’t find again. Tweet at them, write them an email, or add them on LinkedIn. They may be a person you can reach out to with a question or a job listing. If nothing else, writing to them will help you both remember each other’s names.
I’m still learning how to get the most out of a conference experience. Sometimes I fail to follow some of the advice I’ve outlined above, but I forgive myself and keep trying to make an effort.
Originally published on Medium.