I’ve been to 22 conferences over the years, yet, I still find it can be an awkward experience to meet new colleagues. People think I am a social butterfly, but when you walk into a ballroom full of groups of people standing around tiny tables it can be difficult (and intimidating) for anyone to break through. If I have a tough time, others definitely do.
How do you break into the crowd where everyone seemingly knows each other? I took to Twitter for some help and here are my top 10 favorite responses:
You can help people register, moderate a session, or help a group you are interested in run a booth. Downside: If your volunteering interferes with another session or event you are interested in, you’re out of luck.
2. Plan Ahead
This is a great trick I learned later in my career. This is especially good advice for potential students looking to get into a lab, grad students looking for postdoc advisors, or for an opportunity to speak with a high-profile scientist that can be hard to pin down. Downside: Unless you have meetings planned throughout the conference, you will still have times where you may be alone and need to meet people.
3. Compliment Them
This was by far the most popular response. While it’s definitely a good approach, it does have a few important downfalls. It requires you to both remember and like their talk. If you say I liked your talk, the usual response is “thanks.” Then it’s back to awkward silence. You should have a few questions to ask them to carry the conversation. The other downfall is that you have to run into people who gave talks that you went to. At bigger conferences this can be hard to do.
4. Share Experiences
This is great to use when you can’t find any speakers from the talks you’ve seen. It’s also good to use just coming out of a session or before lunch, when the talks are still fresh in everyone’s minds. Even if you don’t go to the same session, you can ask about sessions they went to or the plenary speaker’s talk, which most people see.
5. Use Your Newbie Card
I love this one. I’ve used this myself frequently. It’s especially good for opening receptions when there are no talks or poster sessions to discuss yet. You can also say a variation of it – “Have you been to this meeting before?”
6. Poster Sessions
These are designed for people to interact. If you don’t know anyone, start talking to those presenting. That’s the whole reason they are there!
7. Share the Struggle
The lines at conferences for the bar and food are always really long. Normally, I hate complaining, but in this case, it works! You can also ask people about where they ate. Most everyone will be exploring new restaurants and looking for suggestions.
8. Go For It.
People love to talk about themselves. Get them to do the talking and you’re gold. It takes practice, but just take the plunge!
9. Tweet About Your Loneliness.
This is one of my favorites and why I love Twitter. It’s made networking skills at conferences SO much easier! I’ve literally followed this advice, except I posted it for lunch – “Anyone want to join up for lunch today?” It’s a really easy way to meet others suffering from conference isolation.
10. Invite People In.
Finally, for my tip, I am going to flip it over to you. If you are at a conference and are lucky enough to know a lot of people, be conscious of those around you who don’t. Is there someone eating alone at a table? Standing against the wall with only a plate of vegetables and dip? Invite them into your group of friends.
Have any others? Post your favorite conference “pick up” lines in the comments below.
**This was originally featured on the Wildlife SNPits.
Stephanie Schuttler is a wildlife biologist with 17 years of experience in mammal ecology and conservation, education, and outreach. Read her inspirational story, “My Unexpected Journey Into Science” to find out how she went from the daughter of a jeweler to a Ph.D. in wildlife biology. Feel free to contact Stephanie here.