How to network at conferences without feeling creepy

Updated to Business, Habits on December 14, 2022.

I just returned from the Canadian Association of Professional Speakers (CAPS) conference in Halifax. This was my third speaker convention this year and the best—let me explain.

Deciding if you’ll attend a conference, especially as an entrepreneur when all the hotels, travel and registration costs are coming out of your jeans pocket, can be tough. Will I get business from this? Will I learn anything? Will I make new contacts? Great questions—and unnecessary.

What you get from your investment in a retreat, seminar, or convention is not usually a factor of who’s on stage. Not that we don’t love a good speaker, comedian, or entertainer juggling chainsaws, but the agenda can’t predict your R.O.I.. In the case of CAPS I didn’t even see the agenda until the first morning of the conference.

The value of your investment will be based on the conversations you create from a new collaboration opportunity or a business insight you gained. These impromptu conversations can be worth gold.

Sure, it’s nice to reconnect with friends, but real growth is more likely to come from people you don’t know.

First, you have to make them happen.

Agendas Are Not Your Friend

The typical conference agenda is designed to pack in the maximum content between the opening speaker and the Emcee’s farewell. (As a speaker I’ve seen lots and they all look pretty much the same.) With few exceptions, you are shuffled from main stage keynotes to snack to concurrent workshops to lengthy bathroom line-ups to lunch. Repeat in the afternoon, and again at dinner with another speaker or another performer, followed by a short night only to rise early. You squeeze in a visit to the gym and then start all over again. Whew!

Be strategic and plan ahead.

Who do you want to meet—the Tuesday keynoter, a VP of HR you know is attending, or a peer who you’ve been admiring from afar? Great. Make a list—that’s your goal.

Ask For What You Want

I’ve spent time on too many return flights kicking myself for not reaching out to people I wanted to meet.

You have to start the conversation, but what if you’re nervous? It’s natural to be nervous. Meeting new people isn’t something that comes naturally to most of us—we fear rejection. Maybe this reframe will help.

I’ve never regretted taking the first step to meet a stranger. What I’ve regretted many times are conversations I didn’t start.

The reality is you didn’t know that person before you asked and, if they don’t have time to talk (which is highly unlikely), you won’t know them after you ask. So you see, dear reader, you have nothing to lose.

You Have to Ask. Here’s How.

  1. Remind yourself people like to help. Plus, networking is typically encouraged and promoted at most professional conferences.
  2. Get off your phone. Wasting time checking your email or tweeting a picture of the speaker is an excuse for not introducing yourself to the person who just sat down beside you at lunch. You’re not that important. Put the phone down, turn, and introduce yourself.
  3. You have to start the conversation, and I find location helps. Most people have nothing to do while standing in line for the buffet, shuffling in to hear the next speaker, or waiting for a meal to be served. In those moments I simply lean in and say, “I don’t think we’ve met.” I introduce myself and follow with a question. Questions are the perfect starter because it gets them talking. I avoid the typical “What do you do?” and use conversation starters like: “How are you enjoying the conference?” “I noticed you are with ______________. Do you mind if I ask you a question?” “I was hoping to meet you (even if you weren’t this never fails to get attention), do you mind if I ask you a question?”

The trick is to not talk about yourself (you already know about that person). Instead, briefly answer their questions and then reply with a question for them. The more they talk the more you learn and the better you can direct the conversation. If you find you’re doing all the talking, ask another question. A fail-safe trick to ask them to tell you more about what they just said. (Hat tip to Matt MacEachern). It’s called Double Clicking, and it sounds like this: “That’s interesting. Tell me why you made that decision?”

I’ve never regretted taking the first step to meet a stranger. What I have regretted many times are conversations I didn’t start.

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“The idiot’s guide to networking and making a good first impression.”