How to Make Friends and Connections at Your Next Conference
It’s easy to make a name for yourself at a professional conference. You can get too tipsy at the opening reception, interrupt a respected speaker, or check into the ER after a bad reaction to a substance you tried because the conference was in Colorado. (I’ve seen it happen.)
But you’d probably rather stand out in a good way at the next conference you attend—and that can take a little more effort. Here’s what the experts and research say about how you can make the right impression (and some new connections).
1. Be a Familiar Face
It may be tempting to sneak in a nap during a break or to order room service for meals, but the more you isolate yourself, the more others will isolate you. Research has consistently shown that, whether you’re making a platonic connection or a professional one, familiarity breeds attraction.
So, hang out in the common areas (hotel bar or Starbucks line, anyone?), introduce yourself immediately to the people sitting next to you in workshops, and attend social hours early on. By the end of the conference, people will be drawn to you—if only because they recognize you.
2. Find Common Ground
Another factor that can predict whether two people click is similarity. Romantic partners may face less conflict if they come from similar upbringings, for example, and friends often bond over a love of, say, karaoke.
At a professional conference, you already have something in common with other attendees: Your occupation or professional interest. So use that to your advantage by asking your lunch mate about his current project or career goals, or by asking someone on the elevator what she thinks about a recent development in the field.
Still no interest overlap? Stick to other things you have in common by proxy—how you traveled to the conference, the attractions in the city it’s in, and what you’ve left at home, be it children or pets. You may not find a new business partner, but you may find a fellow foodie to explore the city’s culinary scene with at night.
3. Pay a Compliment
Everyone likes being liked, and the fact that you’re wearing a dorky nametag doesn’t change that. Because of this, a simple compliment can make a difference. In one study, for example, a research team led by psychologist Peter Totterdell found that the more one grocery store employee tried to improve another’s feelings—by listening to him or paying him a compliment, for instance—the better the recipient of those good vibes felt about the compliment giver’s friendship and trustworthiness. Totterdell has also found that people who easily make friends, build acquaintances, and connect with others are most likely to appear enthusiastic.
So, go ahead and gush over a new colleague’s necklace or, even better, compliment her on a recent professional accomplishment. You’ll both reap the benefits.
4. Fake it ’Til You Make It
Being a newbie or the only one from your organization at a professional conference can bring back middle school insecurities. But you’re the only one who knows you feel lonely—and if you let others catch on, you may watch your fears come true, loneliness researcher John Cacioppo told me for a story I wrote on adult friendships. “When people feel isolated, the brain goes into self-preservation mode,” he said, meaning that they become more self-absorbed. That can make you seem cold, unfriendly, or socially awkward.
But if you remind yourself that you’re not alone and walk the halls with confidence—even if it’s feigned—you’ll convince others that you’re a seasoned and well-connected pro. And by the end of the conference, they’ll be right.
Photo of nametags courtesy of Shutterstock.
Anna Medaris Miller is the associate editor of Monitor on Psychology and gradPSYCH magazines in Washington, D.C., where she's also been published in The Washington Post and US News & World Report. She is a novice triathlete, passionate University of Michigan alumna, and graduate of American University's Interactive Journalism master’s program. As someone who doesn't let even the smallest of "holidays" go un-celebrated, she's been called “a weird-stuff-o-meter” and takes it as a compliment. Follow her @AnnaMedaris.More from this Author