I love conferences. I love the awesome speakers, the swag bags, the great connections, the food, the social media component—all of it. In fact, I went to four different conferences this past summer in just a six-week time period.
However, most people I know are a lot more uneasy when it comes to conferences. How do you mingle with speakers? What’s the right etiquette when walking into a session? What should you wear? What, exactly, should you do during break time?
Well, lucky for you, I’m taking you through an entire conference day, all of the potential hurdles you could endure, and how to make the most of your time there.
Before you head into a conference, be sure you do your research on what the conference is about, where it is, what the dress code looks like, who will be speaking, and what sessions you’d like to attend once you’re there. This can save you some confusion or embarrassment later on.
Scared you won’t know what to wear? If the conference you’re going to is an established one, check out the website and find pictures to see what people are wearing. If you’re not able to stalk the website or the conference social media for photos, feel free to email the organizers and ask. Or, if you’re just hoping to wing it, I suggest finding a go-to outfit that can easily be dressed up or dress down. Personally, if I have no idea what a conference environment is going to look like, I wear a professional dress and heels and bring a blazer just in case I need to dress the look up a little bit.
In addition, pack a conference “survival pack,” which should contain a notebook and a couple of pens, at least 25 business cards, a small snack, a bottle of water, your conference registration information, and a phone charger (computer charger, too, if you’re going to want to use that).
If you want to get extra points for pre-conference awesomeness, feel free to check the conference hashtag on Twitter and Instagram to see who will be attending beforehand. Feel free to interact with these people. Who knows? Maybe you’ll all meet up at the event once you’re there.
Conference check-ins can be extremely awkward. Many of them are somewhat disorganized, and there’s usually some sort of chaos in the front of house.
My one pro tip: Be extremely kind to everyone when you walk in. You never know who’s manning the check-in table, and you don’t want to make a bad impression, especially since many conferences (especially smaller ones) have conference organizers or influential people running the check-in table and welcome area.
For example, I was once in a really awkward situation where a girl in front of me at a conference check-in was gossiping about the founder of the company that was hosting the conference. Who was standing right in front of her? That founder. Whoops. Even loudly complaining about how the conference is set up can be a wrong move here.
You’ll want to check and see if the event will be covering meals, but I’d still recommend eating a little something beforehand and bringing food just in case you don’t like what’s being served or something went wrong with catering.
In terms of individual meals, breakfast is an awesome time to get a sense of the energy of the conference when you first walk in. Are people sitting at tables with people they don’t know? Is there any networking going on? These are things to keep track of when you first walk in.
Important tip: Stay off your phone, and come up with a goal for your meal. It can be intimidating to be in a room where you don’t know anyone, and a phone is an easy distraction, but try as hard as you can to engage with people instead. Even if your goal is as simple as having a five-minute conversation with one person over breakfast, that’s better than nothing.
Presentations and Sessions
If the conference you’re at has multiple sessions to choose from in one time block, I recommend going to see a session on a topic that interests you but you don’t know much about. I’ve seen many people get scared and just attend a session with familiar speakers or content, but at the end of the day, you’ve invested time and money to be at this conference, so you should be trying to expand your horizons.
And if you really can’t choose? If you’ve come with a colleague, split up and agree to compare notes at the end of the day. If not? Use breakfast to find a conference friend, and see if he or she will do a similar arrangement.
Talking to Speakers and Panelists
Talking to the people presenting at the conference is often extremely intimidating—especially when they’re surrounded by a gaggle of fans right after their talks. But making those connections is crucial! Not only is “I saw you speak at Conference X” a great opening line for an intro email, but the fact that speakers are also interested in the same things as you can make them valuable allies later on. Plus, in my experience, I’ve seen the same speakers pop up at several different events, and it’s great to build those relationships over a series of conferences.
Of course, talking to a speaker can be a lot easier said than done, so here are a couple of tips. First, position yourself so that you’re near the speaker. If he or she is on the right side of the stage, station yourself toward the front right part of seating. Look engaged during the presentation (not creepy “I’m your biggest fan!” engaged; just happy to be there listening). During the session, write down some interesting points you’d like to ask that person about.
In terms of your approach, be aggressive but not rude (I’ve seen conference attendees literally push each other out of the way to talk to a particular speaker). But get yourself in there! Then, introduce yourself, ask your questions, make whatever connections you wanted to make, and try to get out of there within a couple of minutes if there’s a long line of people waiting behind you.
Another important tip: Don’t just go after the really well-known speakers. If someone spoke eloquently and is lesser known, these people generally have more time to talk to you and can be fountains of knowledge.
In other words, dozens of people go up to Arianna Huffington and ask her about her work on The Huffington Post. But one of HuffPost’s editors? He or she is probably just as knowledgeable and definitely excited to talk to conference goers. Approach those people; they can make excellent connections.
When you see “Break” on the agenda—well, it’s time to put those business cards to use! Remember: The vast majority of people at conferences are there to mingle with like-minded individuals, so don’t be afraid to chat with others and make connections. Obviously, don’t be over-eager (“Here’s my card! We’re now best friends! Get me a job!”), but definitely don’t be afraid to ask for business cards and hand out your card, too.
Making conversation with strangers is always a little scary (and very awkward) at first. However, unlike a networking event where you’re thrown together in a room with little or no context, a conference gives you one topic you all have in common: the conference itself!
If you want to start chatting with someone, it’s as easy as starting off with a question about what sessions they attended or what speakers they liked the most. From there, it feels more natural asking that person what he or she does for a living and why he or she is at the conference in the first place.
Never underestimate the power of using social media (livetweeting, following the conference hashtag, liking and favoriting posts) during a conference. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten to network on Twitter and Instagram with really awesome conference goers and highly sought-after speakers. If anything, being present on social media gives you the ability to be an influencer for an event. Never underestimate the power of social currency.
Even cooler: You can meet up with people you’ve met on the web and make some new friends and contacts. To this day, some of my closest friends and professional contacts were people I met through live tweeting events.
It goes without saying, but make sure you follow up immediately (within 24 hours) with any contacts you made at the conference. Large events can be really overwhelming, so if you wait any longer than a day to follow up, people might have already forgotten your face. Don’t let them!
Talk About It
Whether you’re on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram or you just have a blog, show your love for a conference online! Personally, I love writing blog posts about conferences I go to and what I learned.
Another fun thing is applying conference lessons after the fact using social media. For example, if I heard a speaker at a conference give a great talk on female leadership in the tech industry and then I read an article a couple of weeks later about women in tech, it’s easy to tweet that article, tag the speaker or conference organizer, and use the conference hashtag. Again, it’s great for making connections after the fact and establishing yourself as an influencer.
Best of luck with all of your conference attending!
Photo courtesy of Brennan Moore.