what are your best tips for attending professional conferences?

It’s the Thursday “ask the readers” question. A reader writes:

I have a question that seems like it would be well-suited for an Ask the Readers. I am looking for tips about attending professional conferences. In particular, I am a grad student who is entering a new field and there is a one-day conference that also is an informal hiring event. Almost all of this happens in an expo hall. Thanks to a combo of the pandemic and unaffordable childcare, I have been out of the professional world for a few years and feel pretty rusty in initiating professional chitchat. To be honest, it is something I am terrible at outside of work as well. My mind just goes blank and people think I’m not interested. It is a fairly niche area, so one thing I have going for me is people in the field are generally eager to talk to anyone who is also interested in it. I saw a list of tips you wrote in 2014 and a lot of them make sense, but I don’t know if some things may have changed since then.

Leave your advice in the comment section!

{ 220 comments… read them below }

  1. The_artist_formerly_known_as_Anon-2*

    Have you considered joining an organization – like Toastmasters – which stresses effective speaking and communication skills development?

    1. Employee of the Bearimy*

      Seconding this! There’s a component to Toastmasters where they train you to speak on any topic for 2 minutes or less. This seems like it might be really useful for you.

      1. Just here for the scripts*

        But the most effective tool I’ve used in this situation is asking questions–not trying to come across as a non-resident expert. I think having a set of social and professional (and topic-specific) questions up one’s sleeve is more likely to keep the conversational ball in play than a 2-min elevator speech on a topic.

        1. irritable vowel*

          Agreed! Most people love to talk about themselves, or are at least flattered that you seem interested in them, so having a couple of generic questions on hand is always useful and will help you appear to be engaged. Things like “Is this your first time attending this conference?” or “What’s the most interesting session you attended today?” If you can make it more personal, like they asked a question in a session you were in, or you see from their name badge that they work at the university you attended, etc., and you can spin that into a question or conversation opener, that’s also nice to be able to personalize things a bit.

        2. Liz*

          My go-to at any professional event is, “How did you come to this [role/career/etc]?” It’s a good ice breaker, and has earned me a completely undeserved reputation for being good with people.

    2. Smithy*

      While I totally understand the value of Toastmasters more broadly, I will say that I’m someone who’s become very comfortable with conference networking without becoming more comfortable with public speaking. Perhaps similar to Toastmasters, what helped with conference anxiety was just going to more and more of these networking events. Some that were lower stakes, some higher stakes.

      I say this to add that if the OP can find one or two “networking events” before this more important conference, it might be helpful to go and just try. Essentially, they’d just be those trial runs to hear you say your name out loud, say what you do or why you’re there, and then smile awkwardly.

      Even if you only talk to one or two people before realizing it’s just not for you, I’ve actually found just the practice of sitting or standing quietly alone helpful. No matter how awkward, taking that time – whether 2 minutes or 15 – to regroup and decide what next without getting anxious is really useful during a conference. It may be that your morning sessions are a little strange, but by the afternoon you start making those connections. And not getting stressed by the morning weirdness can be a lifesaver in getting you to the afternoon.

      1. Armchair Analyst*

        this is a really really great idea.

        if you can go to 1 with a friend or mentor who coaches you, the 2nd one with a friend who rallies around and you and encourages you, and then you feel SO CONFIDENT walking into this one after resting up and incorporating feedback, that would be great!

  2. Danielle K.*

    If it’s possible to look up the bios of who will be there for speakers/leadership ahead of time, do it!

    Introduce yourself before they speak and they’ll be impressed.

    Are there specific questions about people you meet you can have prepared, so you’re less likely to freeze?

    Finally – if the conference has an app, use it. Some of the best networking (especially for introverts) and you have time to respond, not on the spot.

    You’ve got this! We’re all rusty.

    1. Liisa*

      I don’t know if I’d necessarily recommend your first tip!

      As someone who’s done a fair amount of conference speaking myself – remember that speakers are also people, and (depending on the industry/conference) aren’t necessarily professional speakers. Before they speak they might be busy or nervous! But talking to speakers afterwards can be great – I always appreciated when someone came up to me with an insightful question or comment that we didn’t have time for in the Q&A, and the contents of the talk can then be a great conversation starter.

      1. Jack Straw from Wichita*

        Yes, after is always good. This is even a good tip in general after an in person meeting with folks you don’t know well. Indicating you were not only paying attention but want to talk more about something they said is *chefs kiss*

      2. LadyByTheLake*

        I was coming to say the same thing about the second tip. As a frequent speaker, before I speak I am always fussed about making sure everything is set up right, that I have what I need, that I can find my co-panelist who somehow disappeared. Anyone talking to me during that time will likely be dismissed as annoying and naive (l’ll be polite, but definitely not impressed). However, come up to me afterward (even that night or the next day) and engage me in conversation about what I spoke about and I will be thrilled to know that you were paying attention and found the presentation interesting.

      3. OrigCassandra*

        As a frequent keynoter, I concur that I much prefer “after” to “before.”

        I’m an old hand at public speaking, don’t get horribly nervous… but before a talk I always try to find an out-of-the-way place to sit by myself, and rather more than half my brain is on the talk — I may even still be editing slides or talk notes!

        If you want me to so much as remember your name, approach me afterwards.

        Exceptions: if you see me at the breakfast buffet or whatever and recognize me as the upcoming keynoter, a quick “looking forward to your talk!” is fine. I’ve also once or twice had people happen upon me, notice my empty coffee cup, and ask if I’d like them to get me a refill. Usually I don’t want that (too much caffeine does bad bad things to me), but I do appreciate the kind offer!

      4. Parakeet*

        Yeah, co-signing this and what others have said in replies to this. I’ve helped run a conference, at which I was also a speaker. My normal job is not Professional Conference Speaker, and it would not occur to me to be impressed that you introduced yourself at a conference (since this is just a normal thing to happen at conferences – it’s like being impressed that someone had to travel a significant distance to attend – and if you do it right before I speak it’s an inconvenience to me).

    2. AVP*

      Seriously co-sign on the app! The absolute best networkers I know all use them extensively. You can introduce yourself to interesting-looking people on the app and see if they’d be interested in having a coffee, or you can find other new-to-the-conference people and make a plan to sit together.

  3. Beans*

    A question to memorize and repeat around whenever your mind goes blank: “What is your favorite part about product/working in field /conference”
    People love talking about themselves and the “what’s your favorite part” keeps the conversation in a positive area.

    1. Hybrid Employee (Part Human, Part Wolf)*

      And conversely, people love complaining — it’s an risky move, but if you’ve got a rapport going, asking “what’s the WORST part” can really get people talking.

      This is an advanced technique, recommended only for expert schmoozers and to be used with discretion.

      1. Warrior Princess Xena*

        On a similar note, if there’s a new product/policy that’s gone live in your field, “How is the transition to X going” can sometimes be a viable option. Do be sure that you don’t accidentally stray into the realm of sharing private company information here!

      2. Ruth*

        There’s a big conference in my field that is really stingy with coffee. So complaining about that is often a good ice breaker!

        1. JustaTech*

          One time the weather gods gifted me with a great opener – the weather had been terrible and folks were asking “oh was your flight delayed?” and I got to say “my flight was so delayed I took a Lyft from O’Hare”. We were very, very far (three hours) from O’Hare so this was impressive, and I told it in an upbeat “funny story” tone.
          It helped me get started talking with folks.

    2. 3DogNight*

      I got a GREAT networking question from one of my mentors, and it really gets some thoughtful responses. What are you most proud of in ____ (your role, your industry, your team, as a leader, etc…) It makes them think, lets them talk about themselves, and gives you a lot of insight.

  4. The Cosmic Avenger*

    If they are at an expo, they are probably there to talk about what they and their employer do, so ask! And don’t be afraid to say you’re in a graduate program and new to the field, a lot of people will love to explain the basics to you. If you can come up with any good, thoughtful questions and they’ll probably be impressed, as they’re not likely to try to judge you for your experience, and if they do, explain that you’re in a graduate program and new to the field.

    If you get stuck, keep a few stock phrases in mind like “Oh, cool”, “wow, that sounds interesting”, or even “So you [something they just said]?” can get them to explain more.

    1. RIP Pillowfort*

      Also if there’s a list of vendors in the expo hall- look up who is scheduled to be there and visit their websites.

      That can give you a basic idea what they do and what their market is like. I find I ask better questions if I know a little bit about what the company does before I show up at the table.

    2. MagnusArchivist*

      Agree with this! I actually find socializing/”networking” at conferences so much easier than in social situations because you can be direct. Everyone is there to network and talk about their jobs, so you can just walk up to folks in a booth say “Hi! can you tell me more about [feature in their booth signage]?” Or walk up to people at a luncheon or cocktail hour with name tags and say “oh, I see you work at _____. How’s the funding/infrastructure/city/whatever?”

    3. cabbagepants*

      I’ve gotten a lot of mileage out of ” what do you wish you had known when you were in school/just starting out your career?”

      1. Properlike*

        THIS! and be prepared for the follow-up questions about YOU. Your interests, your specialization areas, even things you’d like to learn more about.

        With these statements, you give your conversation partner an opening – in the future, if not on the spot – to offer advice, or a potential connection. People LOVE to help other people.

        Do NOT walk in with the “what can you do for me?” mindset. Even when you’re new, you can offer things. And you don’t know the secret talents or relationships of the attendees – the person you chat up about TV shows could be a CEO, or married to the CEO, or simply a cool person. Be friendly to everyone. “What brings you here? Hey, I was in your town and loved x.” If they have the same interest as someone else you’ve met, offer to connect them.

        Networking is a long game. I’ve done it in several different situations and industries now (I love conferences) and used to feel like you did, but now colleagues at all levels tell me I’m really good at it. It comes down to being friendly, open, and helpful.

        If you can spend some time as a volunteer, that will also go a long way!

  5. Chairman of the Bored*

    Don’t hesitate to go to a session or talk to a vendor etc just because they seem interesting, even if you don’t have any immediate connection to or application for the content.

    Some of the best and most useful interactions I’ve had at events like this have come from taking a chance to learn more about something that looked cool even if I didn’t know right away what I was going to do with it.

    Obviously don’t spend your whole time on stuff like this, but it’s not a bad use of a few minutes here and there.

    Also, keep in mind that a ~10 minute walk outside or in a less-crowded part of the event can go a long way towards recharging and resetting in a way that lets you make better use of your time when you return.

    1. Keyboard Cowboy*

      +1 to that first point. I go (went… dang covid + “sharpening focus”) to a fairly large conference that covers things relevant to my job and things I’m personally interested in, and the venn diagram of those has some overlap but not 100%. I try to be kind to myself and go to some of the selfishly interesting stuff too, not just all the work interesting stuff. It’s a good way to keep your morale up over 3 days of early mornings and being “on” all day.

      1. AngryOctopus*

        My boss has said about conferences that there’s almost no way to effectively go to every talk, so you have to prioritize things. Go to the talks that interest you the most. Wander through poster sessions. Try to make it to a networking event if they have one. But also don’t feel guilty for ducking out and doing something fun, or eating a longer lunch, or just spending time away–there’s a lot happening, and you have to give yourself recharge time! Even for a day conference, it’s hard to always be ‘on’, so slipping away for a coffee could be useful to make you feeling up to going back in and chatting!

  6. bamcheeks*

    1. Give yourself a low-ish target to meet– like, you’ll talk to six new people. It gets you started, and honestly six good conversations is good work! You might find that six conversations relax you totally into it and you actually talk to a couple of dozen people, or you might find that six good conversations is perfect.

    2. Have conversations you enjoy, with people you enjoy talking to, about stuff you find interesting. Don’t have too much of an agenda. Ask people about their work even if it seems unconnected to yours. If you start talking about children/dogs/the best place to buy dresses with pockets instead of Real Work Topics, but you’re both having fun, go with it. Sometimes really great collaborations come out of WE LIKE EACH other, not just WE OBVIOUSLY HAVE MUTUALLY INTERESTING WORK INTERESTS. Also it makes the conference more fun and means you’re not in pure work mode the whole time.

    3. Good luck!

    1. bamcheeks*

      Oh, 4. Try and keep a good balance of talking vs. listening. Don’t feel that you are only there to listen! People who are working in the field are often really interested to hear about what’s happening in training, what kind of modules you’re doing, what your research is on, etc, so don’t feel that as a junior member of the profession you have nothing to contribute.

    2. LadyByTheLake*

      I agree with this 100%. The people who become actual friend-friends are the connections that (1) make future conferences more enjoyable, and (2) can later blossom into real work benefits — you never know how or when.

      1. Properlike*


        I go to conferences with the goal of “find three kindred spirits” because I’m easily overwhelmed.

        Also, the exhibitors are professional people too! I’ve made lots of friends learning about them in slow moments.

    3. your genderqueer dad*


      There’s no one way to network and doing it *your* way matters. Some people love schmoozing and meeting every person in the room. Personally, I do not want to schmooze; I like longer conversations and building what feels more authentic to me. LW, if you meet just a few people and have what feel like rich conversations, you can consider it a job well done.

    4. mcm*

      #2 is so true! Have conversations like you normally have conversations, it doesn’t all have to be 100% work focused. Just normally chatting makes people feel more at ease and THEN you can get into work stuff later and become potential collaborators, but you’re starting from a place of, we like each other! and not just, we’re mutually valuable to each other! For me, it also takes the pressure off to not feel like I have to pretend to be a work robot, but can just be a regular person with interests.

    5. Ace in the Hole*

      I’ll add to number 2:

      It’s okay to find a few people you click with and spend more of your time with them (within reason). For example, if you have a good conversation with someone at lunch on day 1, go ahead and sit with them again on day 2! This is not only a good way to build a bit more of a relationship with that particular person, it’s also a decent way to meet new people. The person you know is likely to be in an existing group, and most people are happy to introduce the newcomer to the people they know.

  7. Viki*

    In no discernable order:

    1) Come up with a 10, 30 and 60 second summary of your job/research. Make sure it’s easy to remember and digestible for people.

    2) Shake hands, and smile. Seriously, smiling is the easiest part of networking and people don’t do it.

    3) Google the speaker’s works before you go. Just have a quick idea of other works, and how it relates to you if possible. I like making trees of how someone’s work relates to mine and have those in my folder when I go to the conference.

    4) The weather is always safe, and movies like Barbie and Oppenhimer are easy big topics to make small talk for, if you need it.

    5) Business cards aren’t really a thing anymore (in my industry), but if for some reason you have one, notes on back of how you know them and the connection you want. Wednesday after the conference (or like 3 working days later), email the people you want to keep the connection with about something from the conference or the notes.

    6) If you know where the coffee or washrooms are, you will instantly be on a great foot with anyone who asks.

    1. Quinalla*

      I love these tips, I’d also have 2-3 simple questions you can ask.

      What’s your favorite part of *industry*/*job*? from about is a good one.

      What do you think about X new technology/new requirement/etc.? as applies to your industry

      What speaker/session did you like the best/are looking forward to the most? First version halfway thru to end, second version beginning to half way thru.

      Or think of your own questions, but that way if someone wants to chat for a bit, you have a few questions ready so you can carry on a conversation.

      Someone else above suggested a target of talk to 5 or 6 people you didn’t know. I find a target like that helpful for sure! Something not wild so you can take breaks as needed and talk to some people you do know if you see any, but something to get you talking to at least a few new people!

  8. Turanga Leela*

    My tips for attending professional conferences:
    -bring chargers or external battery packs for your phone/laptop
    -wear layers because the heating varies wildly
    -look for the best free pens at the vendor tables

    In terms of what you’re actually asking about: I’m not great at the networking/hiring parts of conferences either. I’d try to find a friend who’s also going, so that you have someone to eat lunch with and hang out with during breaks. I find it easier to talk to strangers when I haven’t been flying solo all day.

      1. scandi*

        And (especially for women) pick your clothes carefully so you can attach a name tag without damaging any clothing. Some conferences do lanyards, but some have clips (difficult unless you wear a jacket with lapels) or pins (can damage satin weave fabrics) as the only options.

        1. irritable vowel*

          As a corollary to the advice on femme clothing – if you’re going to be a speaker, plan a speaking outfit that you would be comfortable wearing in a variety of scenarios (e.g., on a platform above audience seating or on a counter-height stool as part of a “casual” panel). These things are often arranged without much thought given to what people might be wearing, like short skirts.

        2. Indigohippo*

          The last conference I went to had magnetic name tags. I was really pleased to see something that wouldn’t put a hole in my nice dress, until I realised that I was wearing a nursing bra with magnetic clasps, and spent the next two days trying to stop my name badge sliding up my top attracted to the apparently much stronger magnet in my bra. Women’s clothing: always there to screw your about in new and exciting ways.

          1. JustaTech*

            Slightly OT, but what nursing bra has magnetic clasps? I spend an absurd amount of time fighting with my Kindred Bravely clasps that I’d be willing to risk the wandering name tag at my next conference.

          2. Armchair Analyst*

            I find that many lanyards are given with a length that puts the name tag or badge right in a very uncomfortable or awkward spot for me, like on my br3asts or below so that a tall person can’t even see my name. I like to adjust my lanyard as soon as I can so that the name tag hits me in a comfortable place for me to feel it and for others to see it.

            1. daffodil*

              same. I usually tie a knot in the back to make it shorter, so it lands closer to eye level

        3. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

          I keep a spare (plain, neutral-colored, unbranded) lanyard in my conference bag, so if they only have the clip kind I can attach my name tag to a lanyard myself.

    1. Azure Jane Lunatic*

      Having a power strip and a spare multi-connection phone charger is a solid networking opportunity and establishes a reputation for preparedness and generosity.

      In the before times, I’d have a Costco sack of good individually wrapped chocolates and put a label on it saying “@azurelunatic is sharing their chocolates”, as an icebreaker, a pronoun flag, and also as an explanation about why the chocolates left with me when I changed tables.

  9. Llama Identity Thief*

    Note taking is huge at events like this in my opinion. You don’t have to do detailed notes, we’re not looking for you to keep the minutes of the event, but they serve three excellent functions. 1) They help you jot down the important connecting details for taking advantage of any networking opportunities you fall into. 2) They let you offload terminology and new concepts to be looked up at another time, so you can focus on the part of things you can keep up with, while helping you maintain enough information about the overall talk/presentation/work product that you can slot it in after. 3) Appearances still matter a lot, and engaged note taking – where you’re still talking and trying to ask what questions you can – will do a lot to make you look like the sort of professional that will put in their best effort, that’s worthwhile to maintain as a contact.

    I’m a historically terrible note taker, but I found it a lifeline a few months ago at the conference for my new field.

    1. JustaTech*

      Yes to notes!
      I use them to keep track of new words/phrases/concepts to look up, people who I want to look up later, as well as the content of the presentations (my work expects me to give a talk on the talks I saw).
      Also, it gives me an object to focus on if I’m starting to fade and don’t want to fall asleep/ give in to the siren call of my phone.

  10. Our Lady of Shining Eels*

    And – make sure to wear comfortable shoes, have a bottle of water, and some snacks in your bag (you don’t want to get hangry or suddenly feel faint when networking!).

    1. Shoes*

      Make sure your bag/backpack isn’t so bulky you look disheveled or uncomfortable carrying it.

      1. Mill Miker*

        A good bag itself is good to have. I personally like an over-the shoulder messenger bag (ideally without a flap over the opening). It’s good to have a large, easy-access outside pocket for the event program. Inside, I like one with a lot of organization options, but not a lot of zippers/clasps/flaps, etc.

        Ideally, you can open the bag, reach in, an grab exactly what you want with one hand, and without looking. A least for the essentials: Pen, notebook, phone charger, business cards, glasses case, hand sanitizer – whatever you feel is important.

    2. Elizabeth West*

      The shoes especially!
      I worked a conference at Non-profit Job where the venue had concrete floors. Luckily I was warned about shoes beforehand. I spent some bucks on a cute pair of Ecco loafers and they were fantastic. My feet didn’t hurt at all and those shoes lasted for years before they finally gave out.

    3. Ashley*

      And have something to write with and a tablet for note taking. Notepads are no longer a given.

    4. RainyDay*

      YES TO SNACKS. I have been caught at too many conferences with a loooooong Starbucks line, two hours til lunch, and a growling stomach.

      1. BubbleTea*

        I went to an expo with a full day schedule of talks and workshops, and they weren’t selling actual food! Just packets of crisps and mini packs of biscuits to go with your coffee. I hadn’t expected that I’d be able to eat lunch there (these things never have vegan options) but I was flabbergasted to discover no one could.

  11. She of Many Hats*

    Professionally and socially, you become the most interesting person in the room when you ask the other person about themselves. Have a couple of open ended questions prepared for the conference and reuse them shamelessly.

    Questions like: How did you get into this niche/industry/company? What drew you to this job/industry/company? What is the most challenging part of your role? What do you love about it? Tell me about [company/industry trend/etc].

    Once they get going, you’ll be able to nab a couple of ideas for follow-up questions to keep them going.

    You do the same in a social setting, just changing the topics to things like the latest movie/book, how they know/met someone else, etc.

    1. Anne Elliot*

      Yes to this and also, in terms of who to approach: Look for someone who looks like someone who would be good/fun/interesting to meet and who is in the same class or session as you. For me that’s another professionally dressed middle-aged lady, ideally (but not necessarily) not white/cis/straight, who was paying attention or engaged with the presentation. Go up to them afterwards and say, “Hi! We don’t know each other but I’m [Name/Role/Employer]. I noticed you in the presentation session; what did you think of it?” You can start a conversation about the session and segue into other sessions they/you might be going to/have gone to; what you do and what they do and how the conference aligns with your jobs; other conferences (better/worse); your jobs, etc. etc.

      Of course, if you make the approach and they clearly are not open to engaging with you (giving short answers, looking at you as if you’ve done something wrong or strange, which you absolutely haven’t), then you just maintain your open friendliness and say “It was nice to meet you, I hope you enjoy the rest of the conference” and walk away with your head up, knowing you did not burst into flames and you can always try again.

    2. Camelid coordinator*

      I also think you could add, what advice would you give me
      as someone just entering the field (or looking to enter)? Also, if something they say reminds you of an idea or practice in your old field, feel free to say that and explain the connection.

  12. OlympiasEpiriot*

    Study the agenda beforehand and look up the speakers AND organizer’s bios. There’s a lot of volunteering by mid-career professionals at these conferences. If there are people doing the Things you are interested in, seek them out!

    Have both one of the electronic business cards ready to drop on people AND the paper kind of you can (any print service can do you a simple one, Kinko’s, UPS shop, local print shop, Staples, etc.). Some people love the artifact.

    1. Coverage Associate*

      For paper business cards, pack for pockets!

      In my home city, I don’t like carrying my briefcase throughout networking events. I usually check it, so pockets are very important.

    2. Prof_Murph*

      Yes to looking up speakers ahead of time – I’m always super flattered if someone knows who I am/familiar with my work. Asking questions about the presentation or their research/area is very ‘normal’ and goes a long way in appearing knowledgeable. Also, ditto to comments about shoes, layers, snacks (things will be super expensive in the conference hall!), and professional bag.

  13. T.N.H.*

    Practice! Put yourself into a few situations prior to the conference where you have to meet new people. Start small, like your friend’s birthday dinner, and then move onto networking events.

    Also, maybe only I’ve noticed this, but the new topic at every event is AI. It doesn’t matter what field you are in, ask the group what they think ChatGPT will do to your industry and it will start a lively conversation.

  14. ArchivesPony*

    Have a simple business card ready (name and email) so that if they ask, you have it.

    1. Eclecticmania*

      And be ready to write down their email! Although you may give someone your business card, they probably won’t follow up. Try to follow up with them with a quick thank you email (and resume, if they requested it). It’s okay to be clear as to why you are attending the conference (to find a job!).

      1. Tupac Coachella*

        Whenever I take someone’s card, I write a quick note to myself on the back about why I talked to them or what I want to follow up about. You think you’ll remember “Ann from UmbrellaCo=e-mail about possible opening in web design department,” two days after the conference, but if you’re anything like me, no you won’t.

        1. WantonSeedStitch*

          I do this too! If I am going through cards and I see “Abdul at Miskatonic University” on one side and “wanted to talk about our philanthropic due diligence procedures” on the other side, it will make sure I don’t forget. Also, I try to drop an email to folks I really want to interact with very shortly (like, within a week) after the conference so all that networking energy is still fresh!

    2. irritable vowel*

      You can also use these to enter drawings that vendors may be having for prizes at their booths. Of course, it’s a way for them to bulk up their contact lists, so you may have to subsequently unsubscribe from any email lists you get added to as a result.

    3. Azure Jane Lunatic*

      Especially if your job doesn’t provide business cards or you don’t have a job!

      Many word processors have a business card template; use a legible, anti-aliased font (so your capital i won’t look like a lowercase L, and similar) and if you’re printing up a batch just for this event, feel free to include event-specific information so the other party won’t have to write it down or remember it.
      – What is this event?
      – Are you speaking? When, where, and what about? (If the event is notorious for schedule changes, leave enough space for corrections.)
      – Do you or your organization have a booth?
      – Are you looking for a job? Put it on the card!

      One of my friends writes her phone number on the back of some of her cards, keeps them in the other side of her card case, and hands those out to other women in tech, as she likes to offer herself as an excuse or escape strategy if someone else is cornered by That Guy.

    1. Jiminy Cricket*

      It’s all cute sneakers all the time at the last few conferences I’ve been too. Thank goodness.

    2. The Prettiest Curse*

      This goes triple for anyone working an event. I don’t care what footwear my event teams wear, so long as it has closed toes (to reducd the risk of foot injury) and they’re comfortable.

      1. Robert Smith's Hair*

        conference organizer here – the other pro tip is to bring a second pair of shoes for the day if you have fussy feet.

      1. daffodil*

        I also bring a “foot glide” product to preempt blisters. Of course, best is shoes that won’t give you blisters at all.

  15. AustenFan*

    In all professional fields, even small ones, people have specialities, so ask about their speciality area and see if you have a common interest. This might also lead them to give you advice, since you’re a graduate student. People love to give advice to people coming up in the field. By finding common interests, you might find a future collaborator or respected colleague who could offer advice as you further your career. You are trying to create a connection that leaves them with a positive association about you.

  16. LemonToast*

    I’m not sure if business cards are still needed – all of the conferences I’ve been to within the past few years, no one gave out cards, but they did scan my badge. Pretty much all the vendors scan badges now at the conferences I attend, and a lot of the conferences had phone apps so you could just scan other attendees’ badges as well. So I would see if the conference has an app, and get the app (also helps a lot with organizing your agenda), and be prepared to have your badge scanned a lot. Don’t put the badge in a place where it would be awkward to scan or get to easily, if you can help it.

    1. NeedRain47*

      I would take cards if you have them, b/c you still want to be able to give someone your info if you’re at lunch and not wearing a badge, or if like me you never would have thought about scanning an individual’s badge while having a conversation with them. (also, I’m suspicious that being scanned is why I have so much spam in my work email now.)

      1. Keyboard Cowboy*

        +1 – I like to write a quick reminder of what we talked about on the back of the card, and you can’t really do that with a badge scan.

        1. Margaret Cavendish*

          The conference I just went to had that option in the app – the badge scan took you to the person’s attendee profile, which you could bookmark or add notes etc.

    2. Hatchet*

      Regarding the badge scanning – this would be a great place for you, OP, to put any additional info in your bio/data on in your profile tied to the app. This way it would be picked up by anyone who scans your badge.

      If there’s an exhibit hall with booths, preview them ahead of time on the app to narrow down what you want to visit – don’t feel like you need to stop at every single booth, but do be open to checking out something that wasn’t on your original list.

  17. NeedRain47*

    All of those still look good to me! Standard small talk openers still work, the difference being people at conferences are MUCH more receptive than, like, someone randomly next to you on the bus. It’s okay just to ask people where they’re from and what exactly they do w/in your industry, how long they’ve been doing it, if they like it, etc…. one of those will hit on something you have in common, or otherwise spur the conversation.
    If you know what companies might be there you could also do a wee bit of research ahead of time so you can say to the rep, “You guys do XYZ/ work with widgets, right, can you tell me more about that?” My whole strategy here is to get other people talking!

    1. Christmas Carol*

      Reminds me of all those college mixers, What’s your name, what’s your major, what’s your hometown?

  18. AnotherSarah*

    I like to ask people about the conference itself–“how are you enjoying the conference?” “have you heard/seen anything good so far?” rather than going right into either my elevator pitch about my work, or asking that person about their work. It makes things a little more even. “It’s a pleasure to meet you–how are you enjoying the conference” is much better, imo, than “Nice to meet you, I’ve read all your work, I’m working on…” (which is what I’ve seen a lot of grad students do).

    1. Margaret Cavendish*

      This is my go-to as well. If it’s right at the beginning, you can switch it up with “which sessions are you looking forward to?”

      Also, I would bet that AI is a hot topic in most industries, and most conferences these days will have a session or two about it. So get ready to talk about (or ask questions about) AI!

      ~Do you live in town? or Did you have to travel a long way to get here?
      ~If they’re local, you can ask about their commute; if they travelled, you can ask about their flight, how long they’re staying, etc.
      ~If all else fails, talk about the weather. You got this!

    2. Properlike*

      If you’re read someone’s work, be *specific* in referencing something they said, or a question you had about implications for x.

      Anyone can say they’ve read all of someone’s work. In any field, incredibly impressive to ANY professional to engage with the text and be thoughtful about it later.

      1. daffodil*

        Also, you don’t have to ask a question. “oh, you’re (name)! I really appreciated your work about (topic) it helped me understand (thing)” is a great thing to tell a scholar. They’ll be delighted and probably ask you a question.

  19. Gaia Madre*

    Wear comfortable shoes and layered tops – sweater sets are great; jackets are bulky, and you need to be able to adjust to varying temperatures throughout the facility. Don’t overdo it on the free coffee and snacks – stay hydrated and fed, but not sugared. If you are physically comfortable, you’re more likely to be at ease generally. Ask questions – you know the industry, too – you know what to ask! Take business cards. Manage your time, don’t let anyone corner you for 1/2 hour unless you are getting something out of it. Allison has provided tons of good extracting language: excuse me, I want to be sure to mingle, so nice to meet you, etc. Don’t have more than one alcoholic drink at the happy hour. Watch, listen, circulate. Follow up by email with anyone who was helpful, forthcoming, or who you click with. Have fun!!

    1. learnedthehardway*

      Also, use the coat check if it is available and you’re wearing a coat (obviously) – you can also ditch layers at the coat check, if you get too warm.

    2. NeedRain47*

      I get so jealous when I hear that other professions’ conferences have free coffee and snacks. Giant industry conference that I attend is too giant, we’d put them out of business if they had to buy us all coffee. ;)

    3. Beth*

      Put your badge somewhere very prominent, so anyone you meet can see your name out of the corner of their eye as they smile and say hi.

      If possible, wear a distinctive outer garment. If you end up encountering the same person more than once, they’re more likely to manage a mental connection with “the person in the blue top who asked a question in the morning panel” as opposed to “another person in navy”.

      Because here’s the secret: EVERYONE has a bad memory for names and faces, especially when you’re in a crowd of strangers. Make it easier for the other person, ask them questions about themselves, smile, and you’re already doing better than most.

    4. Kate*

      A tip about following up – try to send follow-up emails while you are still at the conference and the details of your conversation are fresh in your mind. Especially if you promised to send them something or want to ask for a link/document they offered to send you. At the latest, maybe write those emails the day after you get home but don’t let it sit too long because it becomes harder for people to remember who you are and to link your message to the conversation you had.

  20. gingersnap*

    I am an introvert so I totally get where you’re coming from. I would definitely echo others’ tips to set goals for yourself. At my first conference with my professional society I got overwhelmed trying to go to every keynote and breakout session. Now I realize I don’t have to go to every single one (but conversely I can’t ski them all either! lol). I also give myself permission to have the occasional takeout meal alone in my hotel room to recharge. Figure out what’s necessary, and give yourself breaks if you can.

    Finally, one that may or may not be applicable to you, but if the organization hosting your conference gives out those dumb tote bags at registration, make sure to put your materials in your own bag right away. The conference I go to each year somehow has hundreds of people walking around with identical bags and then people wonder why they lose or mix them up. I always ask if I can give the bag right back to the organizers – I already have a closet full of them at home.

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      Yeah, I don’t make our attendees take tote bags or other materials if they don’t want them, for this exact reason. Though at the annual conferencethat I coordinate this year, someone apparently put some items into a distinctive non-conference bag which they thought was their own bag and turned out not to be, so even bringing your own bag isn’t totally foolproof!

      1. gingersnap*

        Haha go figure! My conference is like 75% priests so between the matching clerical collars and matching totes it’s a wonder more stuff doesn’t get mixed up.

      2. Azure Jane Lunatic*

        Label EVERYTHING that’s yours! I like to bring a label maker with me, but I’m extra sometimes.

    2. Yes And*

      I second giving yourself permission to take some alone time to recharge. If you’re an introvert like I am, schmoozing all day is exhausting in and of itself. Getting the most of the conference you do attend is more important than attending every single second available.

    3. Coverage Associate*

      Write your name on papers, like the agenda, that you will use throughout the conference. If a lot of the information is on paper, consider bringing a highlighter. If you have your schedule before arriving, put it in whatever calendar app you usually use, instead of pulling up an email or attachment over and over again. Include specific locations when you make the calendar entries, eg “seagull conference room.”

    4. Seven hobbits are highly effective, people*

      For multi-day events, I don’t try to eat all meals in group settings if even all of them are on the schedule. I don’t care if it means I’m wasting money, for at least one meal a day I am going to sit quietly, by myself, in my hotel room and eat crackers and cheese while reading a book so that I don’t have a howling meltdown by the afternoon of day three due to never having quiet time by myself. The missing opportunities for socialization at whatever group meal I’m skipping are more than made up for by the fact that I can pull it together enough to be pleasant-yet-memorable at the parts I do attend.

      Any identical ANYTHING I’m given that I actually want to keep track of gets immediately either decorated/labeled or put away in my hotel room (or at least stowed inside of my non-identical bag until I can put it away). I keep a Sharpie in my conference bag and will go so far as to put my initials on/near the lids of any to-go coffee cups or similar items to help me tell them apart from everyone else’s. (I usually bring my own travel mug and water bottle, which I also label with my initials, but it’s particularly important if you, like everyone else, has a disposable to-go cup of coffee from the conference center or hotel.) If it’s an event where it’s ok to look quirky, I also am likely to have ribbons, charms, and/or pins that I can add to make “my” conference bag look different than everyone else’s, but that is a better idea in some fields than others. (If the bag has one of those external mesh water bottle pockets, those are easy to weave thin ribbons through, but that relies on you being the kind of person who keeps various colors of thin ribbons in your luggage.)

  21. Liisa*

    * Have business cards ready (if your company doesn’t give them out, you can go to a print shop for basic cards, or something like MooCards if you’re feeling fancy)
    * Practice responses to some common questions like “what do you do” and “what brings you here” and “what are you hoping to get out of the conference” – a quick 1-sentence version and a longer version if people are interested in more detail
    * ^^ Those are also good conversation starters!
    * If you want to talk to the speakers, wait until after they’ve spoken so they’re less likely to be nervous/distracted and you can use something they said as a starting point
    * Depending on your industry, but wearing a company t-shirt or having fun stickers on your laptop (or to trade) can be great ways to get conversations going (yes, I work in tech :D)
    * If you’re traveling to the conference, you can ask people about the area – are you local, is there a nearby coffee shop nearby you’d recommend, etc
    * If you (still) use the birdsite, it can help to add people to a list if you start following them, so later you can remember “oh these are all the people I met at X conference”

  22. greyemkt*

    I’ve had great luck recently with asking questions of speakers or panels. If you pay attention and come up with a thoughtful question (not one of those people who use a question to self-promote), I almost always have people come up to me after to discuss further what I asked, or share their experience. I really enjoy these interactions and try to remember to collect contact info and follow up by email!

  23. Anonymous Koala*

    See if you can find the proceedings from the previous year’s conference online and flip through it to acquaint yourself with important players in the field, organisers, etc. Also look at the schedule online and if there’s a career fair or similar meet and greet event, acquaint yourself with the work those companies do so you have something to bring up when you approach them! Most of all don’t be afraid to engage people at meet/greet events or to ask questions after presentations – both are great ways to showcase your interest.

  24. Social science PhD*

    In terms of academic conferences, grad students often over estimate the importance of briefly meeting the “superstars” in the field. The biggest professional impact for me has been to get to know other students/junior/early career people, because over time we built relationships that turned into professional collaborations, invitations, etc. Getting to know their work and being complimentary/offering positive thoughts about how it connects to your interests and projects goes a long way.

    For a multi day conference, I’ve had some luck in doing things like making a dinner reservation for like 6 people but only inviting one or 2 people before hand, and then being able to say “hey, do you have dinner plans? I’m putting together a group, we have a couple extra spaces if you’d like to join?” (Dinner groups at academic conferences are like finding a table at a junior high cafeteria, it’s oddly nerve wracking and almost everyone is hoping someone will ask them to come sit with them.)

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      If you’re at an academic event with a poster session, the posters are often presented by grad students – and the poster content gives you a ready-made topic of conversation!

  25. hellohello*

    I know a lot of people are moving away from physical business cards, but having tried a digital option before I find the physical version is still way easier for me to use. (No fumbling with phones or qr codes, and the other person only has to take the card, not pull out their own phone or do any work.)

    Also, plan on following up by email with people you meet/find interesting/you’d like to build a relationship with! Just talking at a conference is great, but to build a connection you need to speak more than once with a person.

    And if you’re like me and have a bad memory, I recommend writing down a person’s contact info and a short note on who they are/what you talked about shortly after meeting them. Otherwise you risk getting home and realizing you have a pile of business cards and you cannot remember who a single one of these people are.

    1. Hillary*

      I agree completely on cards – I just bought physical cards for my new business. I like physical cards in the moment, but even better is being able to flip through my binders to find people whose name I can’t remember or to see if I’ve met anyone at a company.

    2. ccsquared*

      I am really surprised by all the advice for physical business cards! I’m thinking the tech industry must be the outlier here because it’s far more common for us to just connect on LinkedIn than for someone to offer or ask for a card.

  26. Someone Else's Boss*

    My conversation “in” at networking events has always been compliments. The key to using a compliment as a conversation starter is to keep it light and professional. I focus on content (What a great speech! I love your signage!) or accessories (Your bag is beautiful, do you find it roomy?). If that doesn’t feel comfortable, shared experiences are a classic small talk starter (I can’t believe how hot it is today – thank goodness the conference space is so well cooled! I see you’re having a crab cake, are they good?). It’s often easy to follow that kind of exchange up with, “Hi, I’m Margaret from Albertsons. Nice to meet you!” Many people like to talk and feel uncomfortable themselves, so if you just get your foot in the door conversationally, it can often lead to a substantive exchange.

  27. DeeDee*

    I’d just be aware of a tendency to make a new friend quickly and then spend too much time with them at the expense of talking to more people. Oh, this sounds so heartless, but it’s something I notice I’ve done after I’ve returned home. Like, I met someone at my level who does work similar to me and it’s natural that I wanted to spend time with them, compare notes on our work, etc. But then I’d walk into a happy hour and spend more time hanging out with them rather than trying to meet more people.

    1. WantonSeedStitch*

      That said, if you bond with someone quickly, especially if they’re around the same stage of their career as you, you can work together to strategize on networking. It can be less intimidating to chat up someone senior to you if you approach them with a partner in crime. Or they can introduce you to higher-level folks from their own organization, and you can return the favor!

  28. LinesInTheSand*

    Don’t be afraid to take breaks. If you have a particularly good conversation with someone, take 5 minutes right afterwards and write down takeaways. This stuff gets exhausting.

    Since you’re new to the field, lean hard on it. Feel free to ask people “Is there anyone else here I should meet?” as you’re wrapping up a conversation.

    Depending on your personal noise tolerance, you may want to consider discreet ear plugs (I like Loops). Hotel ball rooms full of people get noisy quickly.

  29. cldlz*

    Ask questions. People looove talking about what they do.

    Keep a couple of fairly low key personal anecdotes about yourself, ideally related to your field. Ex: my job mean that I have to travel regularly to one specific country. When meeting with people from said country, I always talk about the very unique foodstuff I ate there. Food is a safe topic (might not work if you’re a nuclear scientist as nibbling on uranium is generally frowned upon)

    Show enthusiasm to what people are saying, even if it’s boring. Smile, ask follow up questions. Have a synthetic version of what you do to give in response. Try to find common points.

    When moving from a conversation, tell people that you enjoyed your conversation, that hope to see them again later/at the next conference.

    Talking about the venue/the food or beverages/the area around the venue is always a safe bet

  30. Bosslady*

    I have SO MUCH advice for this!
    First, know going in that you’ll have to get a little out of your comfort zone with saying hi and introducing yourself, but after a few times it’s a lot easier! Remember, that most of the attendees are in the same position! And after covid we are rusty! It’s ok if it’s a little awkward.
    Smile and make eye contact, at the line for breakfast/coffee, when you sit down at a free seat, after a presentation is over and people are getting up to stretch. All you have to say it, “Hi! I’m Oprah (insert your name here)!” I find that other people are so relieved you made the first move.

    Second, ask where they are from, what brought them to the conference, where they work. But then, just make friends! Networking is more about getting to know people and making friends, and then when you have a question or need you can message them on linked in and say, Hi! It’s Oprah! We met at the conference last spring, I’m the one who also has a daughter who plays lacrosse. I saw that your office has an opening, what can you tell me about it?”Or, “Hi! We were talking about the AI in engineering, and I saw this article you might like…”

    This brings me to Third – find a way to make a connection. While you are sitting there listening to the next presentation, connect with the person you just met in the breakfast line on LinkedIn. Send connection requests to all the speakers with a note that says you liked their presentation. Post a picture of the panel tagging the speakers and the organization who put on the conference with a sentence about the awesome content at the conference. This will reach many people at the conference increasing your network, and showing your existing network that you have interesting new continuing ed or information.

    Have fun, go outside your comfort zone, make friends, post about it. Then go back to your hotel room, put on the robe and enjoy the silence haha.

  31. OrigCassandra*

    This is gonna go straight to moderation because links, so here, have all the links!

    If this is on the more academic side of professional conferences, I quite like Shomir Wilson’s guide to computer-science conferences: https://shomir.net/scholarly_publishing.html The publishing advice is CS-specific, but the rest is pretty broadly applicable.

    The Lingthusiasm linguistics podcast has a great episode on what small talk is for and how to do it:

    * podcast: https://soundcloud.com/lingthusiasm/51-small-talk-big-deal
    * transcript of podcast: https://lingthusiasm.com/post/637966495865077760/transcript-lingthusiasm-episode-51-small-talk

    The Introvert’s Guide to Small Talk: https://supermaker.com/articles/the-introverts-guide-to-small-talk

    1. OrigCassandra*

      Conversational cow-pats to avoid stepping in:

      * “Oh, you’re married? What does your wife/husband do?” This is heteronormative and can reasonably be taken as outright homophobia/biphobia. Use the gender-neutral “spouse” or “partner” instead.

      * Assuming a US conference, “Where are you from?” Many people of color in the US will take this as “you’re not American/you don’t belong here.” Try “Where do you live?” or “Where did you travel here from?” instead. “Oh, tell me about {place}; I’ve never been there!” is a good followup here.

      * “Do you have children?” Oof, just don’t, please. One, it’s not professionally relevant. Two, many childfree-by-choice folks (like me) really dislike this question. Three, it will hurt people dealing with infertility, or who have lost a child.

      * “What do you do?” The person you’re talking to may be unemployed, in which case, ouch. “What are you interested in?” or “What’s your area?” is better.

      1. Just here for the scripts*

        Thank you for these! Was coming here to say some of it and grateful that you’ve already done so–complete with the re-phrasing options!

      2. Generic Name*

        I’d hesitate on asking what a person’s spouse/partner does. I guess it’s fine social small talk, but I don’t see how it’s useful in professional networking. I guess I’m biased because my spouse and I are in completely different industries with zero overlap, so his career has nothing to do with mine. There are lots more interesting/useful things to ask about.

        1. OrigCassandra*

          I agree — but I’ve heard it (and similar questions about family) and kind of winced internally.

    2. OrigCassandra*

      More tips:

      * Create and practice canned answers to common icebreaker questions like “Tell me about yourself” and “What do you do?” (yes, it’s a bad question, but people do still ask it) and “How did you get here [in your career]?” and “What are your hobbies/interests?” Think of your answers as elevator pitches — short, engaging anecdotes that volley the conversation back to the other person. “How about you?” after your elevator pitch is a great volley.

      * Consider wearing or having a conversation piece. Jewelry (including pins on a bag), clothing, bags, laptop stickers, phone cases — lots of our appurtenances can serve this helpful function.

      * Have a short list of questions for people in the back of your head going into a professional-social situation. People love to talk about themselves, and they like people who are interested in them! If you can listen, it’s amazing how easily you can get people to like you — and carry the burden of conversation. Several commenters have already made good suggestions for these questions!

  32. Mayor of Llamatown*

    Remember that many, if not most, people are in the same situation as you: They aren’t practiced in chit chat/small talk or don’t enjoy it, they feel awkward conversing with strangers, but they also want to be able to do it. Just that knowledge has helped me become a better networker.

    There are also resources out there for people to learn how to network, stock phrases and questions. Often just “Where do you work? What do you do there? What’s interesting about your job?” and variations on that are good to have in your back pocket, and you can likewise google to find resources of questions for networking.

  33. LadyAmalthea*

    Practice your chit chat first with a friend, or your cat, so that you aren’t actively searching for the start of something to say. If you can have an opening couple of lines, you can probably transition pretty easily to letting other people talk about themselves, if that’s more comfortable.

    Look at a map and have a quick wander around during a slower period so you have an idea of what spots you’d like to visit and if anyone has any interesting swag or food. Years of manning booths at podiatric conferences, and knowing the people who had a cookie oven made the whole thing better, and I could add giving directions to the freshly baked cookies to my conversational starters.

    1. I went to school with only 1 Jennifer*

      ….a cookie oven? That’s a Thing? that people can have outside their house? That’s genius. And even if I can’t eat the cookies on offer, just smelling them can be good.

  34. HonorBox*

    As someone else said, have a goal for the number of people you’d like to talk to.

    Have business cards. Even though they’re more a thing of the past, having one to hand to someone shows your preparation and helps them remember you.

    Have a quick elevator pitch about yourself – your masters program, areas of research – that you can offer in 20 seconds or so.

    Have a few questions ready to ask people. Even if it is something like “what does ____ technology mean for your business” or something like that.

    Don’t be afraid to ask if there are people they know that you should meet.

  35. Justin*

    Pick aspects of the event you are most interested in, go to those, stick to people you know (and they’ll introduce you to their contacts), take breaks (don’t feel ashamed to get a coffee or a drink depending on time of day). And of course, you can always just literally walk around because people won’t know you’re just walking.

    As an ND person I bring earplugs that calm down background noise too.

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      We have a designated quiet room at our annual conference, which can be used by anyone who needs a quiet space for any reason. Quiet rooms are becoming increasingly popular at large events, so it may be worth asking or checking in advance if one is available. On the day, you can just say you need a space for quiet work – in most larger venues, there should be a room you can use, even if it isn’t an officially designated quiet room.

  36. The Prettiest Curse*

    As someone who arranges events for a living but doesn’t often get to go to them – please check in at the registration and/or information desk if you have questions or need help with anything. We get all kinds of questions and are happy to help, because we’re there to help you!

    If it’s something complicated or we’re busy (or if the conference staff are new, using the venue for the first time, or are less-than-competent), we may not be able to get you an answer right away, but in general, we’ll do our best. Also, if you want an extra programme, pen or any other conference swag, just ask and in a lot of cases we’ll be happy to give it to you. And make sure you get as much free stuff as you can out of exhibitors, they often have really good giveaway items – teddy bears and socks seem to be popular giveaways right now.

    Finally, if you receive any pre-event emails for in-person attendees, please try to actually read them! We put as much useful info as we can in those emails, which means that they probably contain the answers to a lot of your questions about the event. Good luck and have fun at your conference!

  37. WorkplaceSurvivor*

    Don’t put your personal phone number on your conference badge- especially if you’re a woman, and they do a badge scanning system for business cards. Also true for social media.

    Instead, make a Google number or provide a business line. And make sure your socials are locked down on too much-identifying info. It’s a reality your card will get scanned by a few not-so-nice people, so don’t open up any contact channels that are overly personal unless you want them open.

    Also, it’s okay to leave any conversation that makes you feel uncomfortable. Have a few lines ready like “I don’t want to monopolize your time!” or “Oh, there’s a speaker I really wanted to chat with- catch you later!”

    None of this is meant to scare, but as a woman who’s attended quite a few conferences, I think this is very important safety info.

    1. Sandals and sneakers*

      This is sad, and very very real and I don’t like it but it’s true. Also why I like to go with a buddy (commented below)

    2. Liisa*

      Yup, this is all very good advice. I’ll add on with a bit in the same vein:

      * If there’s a conference drinks/bar/etc, get your own drink. Don’t accept drinks from strangers. Not even at conferences.
      * Be mindful of walking around with a conference badge that has your name/employer on it – you can flip it around/put it in a pocket when you aren’t actively going to conference sessions.
      * Having physical business cards with your work info (and work info only) can be helpful for avoiding pushy guys who really want you to enter your phone number into their phones. Or ask for their card so contacting them is in your court, but sometimes the “oh, it’s easier to contact me through email, here’s my card” followed by a quick exit can smooth the interaction a bit.

      1. NeedRain47*

        A former colleague came up with the best acronym for the “take off your badge outside of the conference” thing: Don’t be a T.O.A.D! (Tag On All Day)
        I think of this when I realize that not everyone on the public bus needs to knwo my full name and where I live.

      2. Tupac Coachella*

        Yes to all of this. I also use my business card as the contact info on my luggage tag instead of listing my home address. A lost bag can reach me at my job just as easily as at my house, and if someone took a photo or memorized the info on my card, they wouldn’t have anything they couldn’t have Googled about me.

    3. OrigCassandra*

      Thank you for opening this part of the conversation. Here’s a chunk of online lesson I wrote for my future-professional grad students.

      At poster sessions and receptions, please keep an eye out for:

      * folks being cornered or loomed over by other folks
      * folks looking uncomfortable (eyes darting, backing away, arms crossed in front of them) while talking to other folks
      * folks messing with someone else’s drink — if you see this, immediately report it to conference security or organizers
      * folks touching other folks (including non-explicit but constraining touches like putting a hand on somebody’s arm)
      * folks talking smack or talking dirty behind other folks’ back

      Please especially keep an eye out for younger people this is happening to — predators preferentially target them.

      Do not hesitate to join the group with the targeted person — joining a group is totally ordinary and okay at these events. “Oh, hi there!” you say to the targeted person (with their name if you know it or can read it off their name badge). “I was hoping to talk to you! Can I have a sec?” If they’re receptive, you excuse the both of you, get away, and ask if the person is okay or needs anything.

      Many conferences will have a code of conduct forbidding various kinds of predation. Offer to go with the person to report, but do not push them — they get to decide how they want to respond. Giving them a way to contact you (such as a cell number) is a kindness, if you’re up for it. So is offering to accompany them, but again, don’t push.

      (Even I — and I am tall, fat, aging, ugly, and well-known in my field, all of which are predator repellent — had to rely on another conference attendee to walk me back to my hotel once. Not because of a sexual harasser, just this one entitled dude who would. not. leave. me. alone.)

      1. WorkplaceSurvivor*

        This is all fantastic advice!

        I think sometimes it’s extra hard because many of the creepy things that have happened to me at conferences were sorta subtle, and women in particular are trained to be polite. That just multiplies when we’re in a “business” setting. Just know that you’re allowed to have boundaries in business too, and you don’t have to let people monopolize your time.

        Your last comment reallly hit home for me because most of my creepiest situations have been men usually 2-3x my age who linger for waaay too long to “chat” and/or verbally dump on me (while I’m tabling), and then keep coming back persistently.

        People: No one is obligated to your time, and people who do this are not being polite- they are taking advantage of you. It’s okay to be rude to get yourself away.

        1. Gaia Madre*

          Word to all of this. At a conference early in my career I was literally chased up 4 flights of stairs while an older man insisted that my friendly approach meant that I wanted sex. It did not. I excused myself from the queue for the lift and used the emergency stairwell to escape. Luckily, my much younger legs and lungs got me out of there. Keep an eye on each other!

        2. OrigCassandra*

          Oh, gosh, the same guy who caused me to ask another conference attendee to walk me back to my hotel — at another conference some years before, I was tabling for my organization at the poster session and he actually sat down with me behind the table despite having no connection whatever with my organization.

          I didn’t have a good way out, unfortunately — sole tabler and none of my org colleagues were visible just then. Ugh.

          1. WorkplaceSurvivor*

            I’m sorry this happened to you- and to the other women commenting on this thread.

            I’m sad to say I’ve had exactly that happen to me- a persistent dude waiting until my coworker had gone to get food, sitting down beside me to “wait” while I chatted with other clients at our table. I told him he couldn’t sit there, and he just got up and stood behind my table instead. I gave him a total cold shoulder until he got the hint and left. But I was also lucky that I was there with enough coworkers to do that, and still feel safe (if not wary) the rest of the conference.

          2. Properlike*

            We need a code word for women at conferences that they can say to another woman at conferences.

            But here’s one: if you’re a woman in this situation, and another woman comes up to say, “I’m here to escort you to your next panel” or “hey, it’s me from place-you’ve-never-heard-from” try to at least be neutral and go with it. It may be me, helping you get away from that dude.

          3. The Prettiest Curse*

            Yeah, this is one of the reasons it’s a bad idea for organisations to only send 1 person to staff their table. Most large conferences now have codes of conduct for attendees, so if you’re at a conference that has one (it should be mentioned on the registration website), please let event staff know about any harassing behaviour, unwelcome physical contact, anyone following you around or other similar behaviours mentioned on this comment thread (especially anything illegal like drink spiking) ASAP.

            Obviously I can’t speak for how other event organisers handle complaints of this type, but I would not tolerate this behaviour at one of my events and would be happy to have the source of the behaviour ejected from the event if necessary.

  38. LadyByTheLake*

    I set myself a goal of really getting to know one-two new people per conference. And by really getting to know, I mean spend time with them — go to lunch or grab a drink/dinner. Go beyond the work, talk about your cats, a new movie, the difficulty of meeting people at conferences, the awkwardness of small talk! Over the years those REAL friendships have added up — the people I bonded with in the beginning because we were both new and afraid went on to have great careers and they helped me along the way (and vice versa). Exchanging small talk and business cards with 20 people is meaningless unless there’s a real connection, so focus on quality, not quantity.

  39. Sandals and sneakers*

    Go with a buddy. If you are both grad students people are aware that roaming a hall full of strangers is daunting. You can either do the rounds together or check in periodically. And you can trade notes on who was good to talk to. I’ve done conferences for 20 yrs now. I still prefer to have people I know that I can walk around with.

    1. Liisa*

      Agreed! As a very introverted person, I have a couple work friends who have agreed to be my designated conference extrovert – especially useful when the conference is feeding you and you have to make your way past a bunch of networking people to get food or pick a place to eat in a huge banquet hall. Having a buddy who can help talk to people while you make a bee-line for the food can be so great! (But also, pack snacks so you can avoid getting that hangry if you need to!)

  40. Hiring Mgr*

    Write down the names of the people you meet, and connect with them on LinkedIn after the conference

  41. DannyG*

    For such a short meeting: review the program ahead of time. Make a plan, but be prepared to improvise if something better comes along. If there are breakout sessions don’t sit in the same place or with the same people, mix around. Business cards are still useful, both to get & give. If there are breakfast/lunch/dinner/reception(s) attend if possible. Sit with different groups each time. Make time to go to the displays/vendors.

  42. Strict Extension*

    If this is the sort of conference that is attended by vendors you work with, let your sales reps know you are attending. In my former profession where I attended lots of conferences, I had more peripheral dinner and party invitations than I could possibly accept as a result of just letting the folks who wine and dine attendees know I was there.

    Bring cash. It’s handy for tipping the service folks at any events where the food and drinks are provided (like a happy hour event with an open bar) or your hotel cleaning staff and can make things easier if you decide to hop in a cab with some other attendees for an off-site dinner or something and want to split the fare. If your work is sending you, you should be able to ask for some of your per diem in cash for this purpose

  43. Critical Rolls*

    The best thing you can bring in genuine interest and enthusiasm. People who care enough about their industries to go to conferences are usually happy to wonk with you.

    Also, remember that most of these interactions are low stakes. Make a connection, learn a little something, commiserate about the heat/cold, move on. Don’t stress like they’re all job interviews, and don’t worry if they’re fleeting or there’s not a click.

  44. Voodoo Priestess*

    I’m an introvert and have *never* asked a question out loud at a conference. Instead, if I have a question, I’ll try to find the speaker either right after the presentation or during a break. They will usually be happy to talk more, unless they’re super high-profile or have to rush out to travel.

    Practice a few lines to start a conversation or change topic so you have some go-tos if you don’t know what to say. How long have you been doing this? What you’re favorite thing about your current position? What’s one thing about your job/company/etc that you were surprised to learn?

    Practice a few exit lines, so if you need to duck out (or start to be bored or uncomfortable) you have them ready. It was nice to meet you, hopefully I see you later! Nice speaking with you, I need to step away. Etc.

    Also, try to listen more than you talk. Ask questions, follow up, but don’t try to dominate a conversation. People will think so much more highly of you if you’re an engaged listener than someone who needs to make every topic of conversation about them.

    It sounds a little dumb, but having a few lines you’ve practiced can make it so much easier.

    1. mythopoeia*

      A line I like for the point in a conversation where the other person has just described something they do or something about their day and you have no idea how to respond is “That sounds ____.” Fill in the blank with any adjective you like: complex, stressful, interesting, fulfilling, tough…

      It feels like it shouldn’t advance conversation at all, because you’re just summarizing something they said back to them, but it lets people feel heard and validated and they will usually use it as an opportunity to expand on what they said before.

    2. The Prettiest Curse*

      Worth knowing is that some conferences have an online question option available for people in the room who don’t want to ask their question out loud. (Since we live stream our talks, this is the same system used by online attendees to ask their questions.) We use Slido to do this – you just go to their website, enter a short code and then you can type your question. We display a QR code and the URL / event code prominently on screens in the hall and let people know they can ask questions that way. Most speakers do love the opportunity to discuss their talk afterwards, though!

  45. Prospect Gone Bad*

    I would go armed with some industry knowledge

    My industry has a decent amount of laws and regulations (as was the unrelated industry I started in), as well as the usual product innovation stuff.

    I would just read up on as much as I can. Much of my chit chat at events now is comparing rules between different areas, talking about what works or not, asking people what software(s) they use, talking about what’s stupid and what makes sense (there is alot that illogical in the work world that is the same across companies).

    So IMO I wouldn’t think I need to ask probing or deep questions, I’d just lead with informational type comments or questions: the economic news seems positive but do you notice customers struggling? What software do you use to manage leads? Does it need alot of upkeep or is it mostly automated? What type of people are you hiring these days? Do you think the new laws about customer disclosures are pointless?

    Also don’t feel awkward walking away with a “well I just wanted to say hi, nice to meet you, see you next time!”

  46. Loremipsum*

    One of the most valuable things about professional conferences is the list of attendees. Sometimes people can opt-in to a site or app ahead of time to say they are attending the conference. Look at who will be there, check out their titles – maybe you’ll find others that are your professional peers that you can meet up with or connect afterward.

    Most conference speakers include their contact information on the last slide so you can also follow up with them that way. Sometimes I have not been able to ask my question or something will come to me later and I’ll reach out. Have a great time – I regularly apply things I’ve learned from attending an event in person.

    1. The Prettiest Curse*

      We do produce a list of attendees for our conference, but it is opt-in only. So if someone doesn’t consent to being listed, they won’t be on the attendee list. Last-minute changes also won’t be incorporated, since we print the list a few days before the event.

      So please bear in mind that the attendee list probably won’t include everyone who’s at the event, and you should use it as a rough guide rather than a comprehensive listing.

  47. Hillary*

    Don’t be afraid to say you’re entering/returning to the field and looking for a job. It might feel embarrassing, but don’t ask, don’t get.

    I echo the advice about preparing your elevator pitches. You should go in with clear goals – meet folks at x company, go to these tables at the career fair, learn about something, whatever. Those goals can also be a great thing to talk about as you meet people.

    Update your LinkedIn – I’ve been known to pull out my phone and add them while we’re talking. The downside of that is it means you have to make a great first impression there.

    It’s much easier to join groups with odd-numbered members. 2 is hard because they’re 1:1, 3 is easier, and so on. I like to sit down at tables with one person because it’s easier to start a casual conversation. I’ve met some great folks that way. Also, at a multi-day event get to breakfast early, have your food, and if it’s big enough switch tables when you finish (leave saying you’re getting another coffee). The early birds are often extraverts. Be ready with exit strategies (fill water, use the restroom, grab something from my room before the next session) and don’t hesitate to deploy them.

    Asking for advice always opens people up. What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out is a good early-career one, is there anyone you think I should meet, anything I should study. It makes them feel like they’re helping you. YMMV on what they say, don’t take all of it uncritically.

  48. Aspiring Chicken Lady*

    If you’re browsing tables and there’s lines, talk to your line mates rather than staring blankly ahead. Ask if they’ve seen or heard anything that they weren’t expecting, or that they’d recommend you check out next.

  49. Rick Tq*

    Another vote for taking notes using pen and paper. From my experience it helps me remember the content and also gives me something to refer back to if I ask a question during Q&A.

    Also, put your phone on silent during sessions. The content being presented live should be your focus. Your phone can come out during breaks.

  50. Tupac Coachella*

    As a hardcore introvert, this question resonated with me. OP doesn’t mention whether that’s part of their issue, but I do have a few tips for conferencing when you’re not a fan of peopleing. I smile a lot, on purpose. It makes a good impression even when I don’t say much. I’m very protective of my time-not a lot of group lunches or dinners if I can avoid them, and I skip most receptions. It IS a missed opportunity, but I’ve been to enough to know that it’s not where I make useful, meaningful connections, so I save my energy for other things.

    I also have a whole cadre of scripts that I use at conferences to make the networking part come a little more easily (especially since I’m in a field that tends to attract highly social people). There’s a Princess Bride meme out there that’s hilarious but also super useful about using the Inigo Montoya approach to start a professional conversation:
    My name is Inigo Montoya. (Polite introduction: “Hi, I’m Tupac!”)
    You killed my father. (Relevant connection: “I really enjoyed your presentation yesterday on llama farming innovations in Tibet.”)
    Prepare to die. (Manage expectations: “I’d love to ask a few follow up questions-can I e-mail you when the conference is over?”)

  51. KatKatKatKat*

    Here are some questions you can ask anyone!

    1. Who do you work for? What does your company do?
    2. How long have you been with your company?
    3. What company were you with before your different company?
    4. Where did you go to school?
    5. What did you study there?
    6. Where are you currently living? Is that your company’s headquarters?
    7. Do you have any advice for me as a grad student entering this field?
    8. What are some trends you see in this field?

    Remember to thank them at the end of the chat! Hopefully they will ask you some questions as well :)

    1. KatKatKatKat*

      A great way to wrap up a conversation is to ask someone if you can add them on LinkedIn!

  52. Immortal for a limited time*

    I’ve been to many conferences, but recently was asked by my employer to attend a local conference as a liaison for our organization. The conference was for people who perform a tasks that is regulated by each state government and that requires specific training and certification. I myself and not trained or certified to perform that task, but there were recent developments in the field and I was sent to gather information and bring it back. So in a sense, I was in a similar position to you — feeling interested in the topic but out of my element because I had no direct experience with it. So here’s what you do: You ask generic questions, and then you listen! When talking to other conference attendees, I’d ask: “So where do you work / what is your role at (org shown on their nametag)?” For presenters and vendors, I’d say, “Tell me about your product / area of expertise.” And then I’d listen. When they turned the questions back on me, I’d say, “I am not a (specialized role) myself, but am here to gather information about (exciting new development) for my organization.” In your case, a good response might be, “I’m new to this field and am here to absorb as much information as possible!’ or something equally true and equally non-controversial. I don’t think it’s going to be as awkward as you think it is. Have fun!

  53. Dan*

    I am a professional conference organizer and have been for about 14 years. A few tips I give to people attending and/or exhibiting for the first time is:
    1) Eat lunch with random people and just start a conversation as you would anywhere else. There’s even nothing wrong with glancing at someones badge and asking “What do you/company do?”

    2) Participate in sessions and engage in them. If there’s a panel and they have a Q&A, put your hand up and ask a question, join the conversation!

    3) Don’t overthink it. Whether you’re talking to a CEO, a hiring rep or anyone in between; they’re still a human being. Find a little common ground. There’s nothing wrong with commenting on the weather to start a conversation. For example, I live in NJ and the main conference I host is in Las Vegas in Feb. I may just stand near someone and comment “It’s so nice to get a little break from the cold back home…” and let it progress naturally.

    4) Take notes! Personally, I make a little note on the persons business card but that’s just the way my memory works best.

    5) Follow up and, if possible, personalize it rather than using an email template. There’s nothing wrong with having a template but maybe edit the intro lines to link back to the conversation you had with them.

    6) LinkedIn is your friend. Update yours and also look up people you want to connect with there. It’s totally fine to message someone on LI and say you’re going to be in attendance and you’d love to take a few minutes to chat about opportunities at XYZ Company.

    I’m sure I have more but I’ll take a break here.

  54. OrdinaryJoe*

    Have personalized ‘business’ cards printed up with your LinkedIn account on there with an updated resume and contact information. Avoid the set ups that have stuff printed on both sides, like a design, and have just a blank back – that gives people a spot to easily jot down notes about you as reminders.

    Don’t forget to also take the person you’re speaking with cards so you can easily circle back with them, jotting down your own notes on their cards to remind you what you spoke about.

  55. AnotherLibrarian*

    1. Bring paper business cards if you have them. It’s old fashioned, but I find it is super helpful.
    2. Take notes. I find I can often find a minute to slip away after a convo, scribble down someone’s name and institution and one thing we talked about. This allows me to write a follow up email a few weeks later letting them know how lovely it was to meet them.
    3. You can skip the talks, don’t skip the social events. The first conference I went to, I went to every talk, but skipped out on the social things, because I was too drained to keep being “on”. This was a huge mistake, because I gave up the opportunity to casually network.
    4. If there’s a “first time attendee” flag for your badge, grab it and put it on the badge. People (including me) tend to reach out to folks with those and try to be extra welcoming. So, it will prompt people to approach you.
    5. If you’re like me, and you really struggle with talking to strangers, write out a list of questions to ask (even simple things like- are you enjoying the conference) and use it to prompt yourself as needed privately. I used to check my list before every cocktail party/reception/coffee hour. Just seeing a neat little list of questions reminded me that I could do the thing that was hard- talk to people.

  56. Corporate Goth*

    Be kind. People get stressed out by conferences and are ruder than they intend sometimes. Usually it’s just karma points – you never know when offering a compliment or a kind word goes a long way to making someone’s day.

    Occasionally, there’s additional benefit, so know your organization’s ethics rules. I once waited for a presentation to start near an exhausted salesman. Even told him up front I wasn’t a buyer, but we chatted about his product anyway and both got a chance to decompress from the conference crazy for a few minutes. I asked a few questions, he scanned my badge so his presentation counted for his metrics…and because I wasn’t a jerk or rude to him, he handed me a VIP ticket for a prize. Turned out to be a really nice music speaker, fancy pen, and Ember mug – shockingly expensive swag.

  57. Teekanne aus Schokolade*

    Schedule a free afternoon or entire day, especially for introverts. I got so burned out after three days I was completely sick for an entire day, and our team members dropped like flies during our world conference. People don’t tell you that conference hours are like 16-18 hours per day!

    1. Gretchen*

      I second this. Allow yourself to skip a session and go do something totally unrelated to the conference. You may even want to go back to your hotel and take a nap. At some point you stop absorbing information and need to let your mind rest. I always schedule a little time to explore the city–especially if it’s some place new.

    2. The Prettiest Curse*

      As a conference organiser, I’d like to add that we really don’t expect people to attend every single talk or be networking at every single break! (The annual conference I organise is 1 day, 6 hours of talks – people go in and out, only attend part of the day etc.) Do what works best for you.

      And especially don’t feel obligated to do dinners or networking receptions every night, being at a conference during the day is exhausting enough – though if you’re invited to an invitation-only event and can’t go, do your best to let whoever is organising it know that you can’t attend so they can take you out of the head count.

  58. Beth*

    Safety tip: Don’t automatically scan QR codes, especially if they’re just posted with minimal explanation. QR codes are the new fave vector for malware and phishing.

  59. nona*

    I have to do a lot of these, and I’m not particularly good at small talk. I’m now on the more senior end, so have seen it from both sides. My thoughts:

    -introduce yourself ( first name *and last*), and explain what you do in one sentence. ” I don’t think we’ve met before, I’m nona. I work at X on Y. I really enjoyed your talk earlier today – I thought you did … really well”

    Conversation starters:
    -how are you enjoying the conference? Have you been to X town before? Personally, I find small talk incredibly dull, but I see it as a part of my job to create a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. So if I have to have the same conversation about the weather 17 times in a day, so be it.
    -if you’re familiar with someone’s work, tell them that (it’s nice hear, and will help them know you’re in the same field).
    -don’t network too aggressively. if there is something specific you want to talk to someone about in detail (working at their company, etc), ask if they’ve got time for a chat.
    -remember the senior people in the room find these things just as exhausting as you do.
    -keep circulating ” I need to grab some coffee / get some fresh air / I want to go say hello to so-and-so”
    -I am a non-native English speaker, and those venues are often quite loud. Make sure you’re speaking clearly and not too fast.
    -if there’s alcohol, I’d avoid it, or strict limit of one drink.

  60. Warrior Princess Xena*

    A couple other general tips!

    1. Make sure the clothes you are in are ones that you are comfortable in – there is nothing more miserable than trying to be professional while sweating in a too-heavy blazer or freezing your toes off in overactive AC. I like to have a light cardigan or sweater on hand to be deployed if needed.

    2. Make sure that your LinkedIn is up to date and ready to go, and proofread all your materials. And make sure that you have everything at hand and ready to go! Trying to dig a pen out of your bag while at a company booth when there are 3 other people behind you and a recruiter watching is a very stressful experience.

    3. Alcohol: avoid it. Even people who are familiar with mixing work and drinks can get it badly wrong (see: the Christmas Party threads that show up here every year). Similarly, they are a bad place to experiment with new foods. Midway through a conference is not the place where you want to find you that you are allergic to dragonfruit.

    Above all, know that everyone there was new once and that more often than not, “I’m new, share with me your wisdom!” is a really fast way to making industry friends. I hope that you have a great time.

  61. Fleur-de-Lis*

    If there’s a conference introductory session for folks who are coming to the event for the first time, attend! I found it really helpful when I went to a long-running event for the first time to be able to meet others who were getting started, and also to chat with the folks who were part of the planning and therefore more established in the industry.

  62. jbn*

    This seems old school but have a couple resumes handy & printed… you may not need them as so many things are digital these days, but when I’ve attended these type of things on the hiring side, I would happily take someone’s resume after we had a convo about a potential fit at my organization and it would make its way back to my office with all the other conference materials to be sorted through when I got home. Definitely exchange contact info/get business cards to follow up via email but a hard copy can’t hurt!

  63. Abandoned water bottle*

    If there is a Keynote or Plenary session, attend it. Then you can always refer to the topic if you are lost for conversation.

    Also, if the organizers are looking for volunteers to work the registration table, or something else, that’s a good way to get your face out there. I used to do that when I first started attending a conference in my field and didn’t know many people.

  64. Filthy Vulgar Mercenary*

    I also struggle with small talk! Or intros! So I got my husband to teach me.

    When someone tells me what they do or who they work for, I enjoy asking “what does a day in your life as a Llmama Wrangler lead look like?” And then you can ask follow up questions based on what they say, like “do you miss wrangling llamas yourself or do you prefer coordinating for the team that does the actual wrangling?”

  65. Then We Would Have To Go Outside*

    One thing I like to do is write down at least one take-away from each presentation and then post it on Linkedin later and tag the presenter in my post. So it’ll look like “I attended an excellent session called How to Incorporate AI into Your Llama Herding Practice at the US Llama Convention last week. I’d never considered plugging llama noises into a large language model before. Thanks, @PresenterName for the great talk.”

    It’s a way to share helpful info with the people in my network who didn’t go to the conference, and the tagged presenter usually comments and connects with me. And I can do it after the conference when I have more energy. (Just don’t wait too long after the conference.) I like to do about two of these posts a week until I’ve covered all of the presentations I attended.

    It’s an asynchronous way of networking, which can take the pressure off. Similarly, if the conference has a hashtag, look for that hashtag on Linkedin. If other people have posted interesting thoughts, leave a comment on their posts and connect with them.

  66. TLCatWork*

    If you like the work they’re doing, consider volunteering to help with the next event. That is a great way to make professional contacts (even friends!)

  67. HannahS*

    As a person who learned how to small-talk in adulthood, I have found developing “formulas” in advance to be really helpful. I went from feeling painfully socially awkward to being able to converse with a stone (or more importantly, people whose jobs I think are really boring.) This is what would feel easiest to me:

    1. Enter conference session/breakfast/lunch, speak to the person next to you.
    2. Smile, issue the standard greeting in your region (hey how’s it goin’, hi how are you, howdy]
    3. Ask a general question related to the conference like, “How’s your morning shaping up?” or “Been to this conference before?” or “Hey, I missed the croissants, where were they?”
    4. Listen to their answer, and if they don’t ask you back, answer it yourself (“My first session was on fish tectonics and it was really great,” “Gosh I haven’t conferenced in so long,” “Yeah, they really do have interesting food here.”
    5. “Sorry, I didn’t get your name? I’m Jolene.” They say their name.
    6. “I’m a grad student in really hoping to work in the lava-fishing industry. What brings you here?” They tell you their job.
    7. Ask follow-up questions, “Oh neat, how did you get into that?” “That’s so interesting; what’s your day-to-day like?” “Mm, and is that really more focused on logistics? How do you like it?”

  68. lostclone*

    1) Nearly everyone feels awkward at this sort of thing, so you’re not alone

    2) Write a bunch of stuff in your notes app that you want to talk about and occasionally pop to the loo/similar to review

    3) Ask questions! People like talking about themselves.

  69. Gretchen*

    For initiating conversations but also for interacting with people, I highly recommend Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People. The audiobook is excellent too. The book is a classic for a reason–very readable with lots of great advice. I learned a lot when I read it and probably need to read it again.

  70. Thank God (or something) I no longer work there*

    I was the conference chair for a professional conference. For a lot of our younger employees it was their first conference. I was also their boss’ boss in many cases. My oft spoken rule was “What happens at conference stays at conference unless I have to bail you out”. I said it and meant it. You like fishing and the hotel offers fishing trips? Have fun! A few suggestions for not pushing it…
    *Attend most of the conference. I don’t mind skipping a few breakouts for that 2 hour fishing trip but show up for the other 20 hours. (Over 3 days.)
    *Don’t argue with a conference vendor about the quality of their product. Though if they ask and you think it sucks…Be polite but if they don’t want to hear the truth they shouldn’t ask either.
    *Don’t hang out only with your coworkers. I’m shockingly introverted for my industry but meeting people from all over the state is fun. And you might learn something!
    *If you win a door prize thank the vendor who donated it. Very few people do and they appreciate it. Also thank people who are handing out freebies. Again, very few people do.

  71. Parakeet*

    If the physical layout of the conference involves circular tables rather than rows of chairs, other people at the tables are often happy to chit-chat a bit before or after the speaker speaks. Talking to the speaker AFTER they speak can also be great, as long as you aren’t making them late to their next thing.

    As others have said, pace yourself. If there are, say, two receptions, it’s okay to only go to one.

    You’re likely to eat different things than what you normally would, as people tend to do when traveling/staying in hotels, but don’t eat, like, triple what you normally would (this can be hard at conferences that provide a lot of free food, or conferences where a lot of networking is happening at restaurant meals). The hotel or conference center restaurant is often overpriced and only really suitable for heavy dinners in my experience. Taking a short walk/wheelchair ride/bike ride/however you prefer to go short distances, to get meals someplace else, can be really nice and also get you a little bit of exercise (which is great after sitting and listening to talks for hours).

    If you have a physical therapy routine, don’t neglect it at the conference. In fact, ESPECIALLY don’t neglect it at the conference. Conference chairs are, um, not good for some of us.

    If your phone’s battery life won’t last all day under heavy usage, carry an external battery and charging cord with you.

    If there’s someone there with whom you already have a good relationship, who is a little bit senior to you (or even a lot), and knows the field better, and is willing to do this, they can introduce you to other people.

    1. Parakeet*

      Oh, and if there’s another conference at the same venue, don’t steal their food/coffee and don’t be snarky jerks about the fact it makes the hotel check-in line or whatever longer than it would be if you were the only conference there.

      I helped RUN a conference for the first time not too long ago, and this was an issue. Not with our attendees as the perpetrators, thankfully, since that would have been embarrassing rather than merely annoying.

    2. The Prettiest Curse*

      If you leave your phone somewhere public to charge – 1. Let people know that you’re leaving it, so that there isn’t a random phone left at the end of the event and nobody knows whose phone it is (this is often a problem at registration desks)
      2. Remember to take it with you! An attendee once left her phone charging at a Saturday training at our office. The office isn’t open on Sundays, so she didn’t get it back till Monday.

  72. PlantProf*

    Are you the type of grad student who has a research project? If so, don’t be afraid to ask people questions about it. Some of the very best conversations I had as a grad student at conferences was when I screwed up my courage and asked one of the big names for advice about X problem with my research. They were always very kind and gracious with their time, they often gave me really good and helpful advice, and it built a connection that continued into other times and other topics.

    My other main strategy has been to tag along with a friend who is great at starting conversations with people. I don’t know if that’s actually a great strategy overall, but it’s worked well for me—I’m with her, she starts talking to someone, and I’m magically in the conversation too. If you do have a friend like that, that can be helpful.

    1. techyqueer*

      100% agree with the second strategy. I love networking and bringing people along to introduce around if they’re younger or just hate doing it.

  73. techyqueer*

    Don’t be afraid to walk up to people, introduce yourself, and ask a bland question like, ‘what company are you with?’ Let them know you’re in grad school, switching fields, and close by asking if it would be all right to connect with them on LinkedIn and getting their card or quickly jotting down their name and company right after you walk away so you can find them later. Especially since you’re in a niche field, this one day could be the genesis of the network you build that will help you land a job and grow a career in this field. Get personal cards made with your personal info and LinkedIn contacts. And afterwards, reserve 15-30 minutes once a week to post something on LinkedIn and start building your personal brand, so when you’re job hunting, recruiters and hiring managers can see you have been putting in the work to learn and show off your industry knowledge and transition into this new field.

  74. Gingertapple*

    Oh heavens.. my recommendation… bring a big purse. So many free objects… that people don’t want. All of my kitchen wear… I’ve borrowed from hotels… save money in this economy. Similarly you can sometimes take some decorations… it’s a part of regular costs for running the conference they won’t mind.

  75. Susan*

    I can feel you going into this thinking you need to be spontaneously charming. Just like any job interview, you will have a mental checklist of smart questions ready, and a well-rehearsed elevator pitch about yourself. Have a couple of conversation openers ready like ‘how does [subject of conference] impact your day to day work’, or ‘how will [subject of conference presentation] transform your work’. And don’t forget the gracious exit wording ‘well I mustn’t monopolise you!’ or similar. Everyone finds them awkward don’t worry!

  76. Sharon*

    Have an idea of what you want to get out of the conference and pursue that rather than just making idle chit chat. If you are looking for a job, ask if they know anyone hiring for that job. Ditto if you’re looking to hire anyone. If you want to know more about how regulation X applies to business Y, or what vendors people use for Z, ask about that. Of course, you’ll still need to make some chitchat (and be sure to let other people ask you THEIR questions) but having a goal or mission can really help you focus and meet the right people.

  77. LabSnep*

    As a neurodivergent, queer, Trans nerd who usually goes to nerdy conventions, I feel like an enormous fish out of water at professional conventions.

    Like. I’m the skateboard meme but it’s “How do you do, fellow humans.”

    I miss out on a lot of opportunities, but I found the last conference super overwhelming for me (sensory, accessibility, one of the presenters did a weird toxic positivity/mobility/exercise presentation that was super ableist towards people with mobility issues and folks like me with autism and I put feedback towards it and never heard back).

    I find that while there are a lot of people like me in my career, most of them don’t go to the conferences. Or they’re like me and just kinda hide or vanish.

    So I wish I could help, OP, but unless I end up with a niche thing to present, I’m just going to watch streams from afar.

  78. didi*

    I try to follow these practices when I attend professional conferences:
    * Make a goal to make a real connection with X number of people. I’d rather have a real connection with, say, 5 people I can add to my professional network than, say, have a casual “see you on LinkedIn” type thing with more people.
    * Bring business cards – yep people like them.
    * If you find these events awkward, it’s OK to say so! Everyone finds them awkward!
    * Be sure to connect with people different from you – seek people of different ages, industries, levels, race, gender etc.
    * Come with a few good questions to encourage connection. I like to ask people how they got into their line of work, what’s a big accomplishment they had recently, what’s a big pain point for them or such, so there’s a dialog going.
    * Make plans to connect in the future or follow up. Say grab coffee of have a chat on Zoom every few months. If both of you find value in the exchange, you’ll make it happen.

    * Definitely add people to

  79. Janeric*

    Volunteering at an event like this goes a LONG way for networking. An issue is that once you volunteer once, you’ll ALWAYS be in the “will volunteer” network.

  80. K*

    My advice is that conferences are industry specific and that you shouldn’t take advice about them from internet strangers who work in other industries.

    1. JustaTech*

      True, but…
      I work in biotech. My mom worked in non-profit development (getting funders). Our fields have essentially zero overlap.
      But that doesn’t mean she was wrong to warn me that conferences can be freezing, and you should wear comfortable shoes. Some things are universal.

  81. Regina*

    Not every conversation has to be spontaneous! Many people arrange meetings ahead of time at conventions, and it’s OK to send an advance email to people you’d like to meet – “Hi, I’m X, I’m interested in meeting because Y, is there a good time for me to stop by your booth/grab a coffee?”

  82. Distracted Librarian*

    One of my favorite techniques: introduce yourself to anyone you find yourself sitting next to. To keep the conversation going, ask them about their work. People *love* talking about themselves and will come away from the interaction thinking you’re a wonderful conversationalist.

  83. Ellen*

    Try paying attention to your breathing. I used to have this exact same problem. Any time I was nervous about talking to someone, my mind would go blank and I would walk away feeling so defeated. I brought it up with a therapist and they said to pay attention to my breathing. Turns out, I was unconsciously holding my breath from the stress, which lowered my oxygen and made it hard to think. I started consciously taking slow even breaths at the begining of the conversation, was able to be my normal friendly self and once the conversation got flowing the nerves would go away and I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore. Also came in super handy with dating.

  84. Kaden*

    Since it doesn’t look like people have gotten too deep into this yet: A lot of conferences continue at a bar at the end of the day. The atmosphere is a lot more relaxed, but it’s still a professional event. You don’t want to over-indulge or be mortified in the morning about what you said/did in front of your new peers and connections.

    If that’s a new kind of situation for you, set out a plan ahead of time for your limits, what non-alcoholic drink you’ll order if you decide to opt out (either entirely, or just when you’ve had enough), and your plan to get back safe to your hotel room (maybe your default at home would be to walk, but that’s not always the best choice in an unfamiliar area. if in doubt, ask a local attendee or conference organizer about the best ways to get around).

    In the moment, watch for someone who seems to have a handle on it–not the “life of the party” but the veteran conference attendee that’s there socializing without getting crazy–and make sure you’re modeling their behavior more than the party animals.

    You *can* also opt-out of the post-conference socializing entirely. There are plenty of people that always skip that stuff and still build a good network and have valuable conference experiences. But there are a lot of good connections to be made that way, and there are benefits to industry discussions in a more relaxed “off-the-record” environment, so at least consider it.

  85. WhyAreThereSoManyBadManagers*

    Wear a good quality tight fitting N95 mask while indoors around others so you can stay healthy to keep working and go to more future conferences. Eat your meals outside in courtyards or on benches when possible. So many people getting infected at conferences and many developing long Covid after that, unable to work or focus. Be smart and preventive about it.

  86. Reb*

    I find it very daunting to try and join a group that’s standing around chatting, unless I know the people pretty darn well. So I look for someone else who’s by themselves and just introduce myself. And then I ask a simple question like “Have you been to one of these before?” or “Where are you from?” If that person was also doing the oh-god-I-wish-I-knew-how-to-talk-to-people thing that I am, they’re mostly glad to talk to me.

  87. Rebecca*

    I find that it helps to just own how awkward you’re feeling and ask a question about the person you’re talking to (not a product or business thing, but the person themselves). Admit it and laugh about it. Most everyone else is feeling awkward too, and it humanizes you to anyone that might matter.

    For example: “I always feel so awkward starting these conversations. I’m really interested in learning more about elephants, even though my focus is on rhinos. And it’s funny because I normally never shut up when it comes to rhinos. What made you want to work with elephants?”

  88. Raida*

    Have a few things up your sleeve that aren’t work related if someone seems a bit tired of talking shop.

    “So if you could have catered this event, what finger food would we have today?”
    “What’s the best event you’ve been to? Was it recent or a while ago?”
    “God I’m glad I wore my comfortable shoes today with all the standing! Yours look nice, happy with them?”

    They are event-focussed but not work-focussed

  89. Ariana Jinx*

    Grab a coffee, or a plate of food if it’s a buffet, and find a table to perch/sit at to steady your nerves. There tend to be a limited number of tables so someone is bound to join you very soon. Share a smile, look at their badge and you’re off! You can even stay at the table when they move on to mingle and someone else will arrive. Great if you don’t like awkward hovering around groups. And if you can move on when you want to by returning your coffee cup. Also you always meet more people when you attend alone than when you’re with a colleague.

  90. Rick Tq*

    Don’t forget the 5,3,1 rule for conventions of any kind:
    5 hour of sleep each night
    3 real meals
    1 shower

  91. Rainbow*

    I love conferences. I am really lucky and go to like 8-16 a year. You don’t have to talk to people if you don’t want to, but also “networking” is really not a thing. They are just people with mutual interests with you and you are just talking to them. I like conferences so much because cannot lie, they’re most of the socialization I do.

    And, I’m autistic so while I generally go to everything, if I do want to leave for a bit then I now just… leave

    My advice used to be to go on Twitter and get to know your community beforehand if they’re there, but yeah that might be outdated advice now.

  92. KathyG*

    These ones I got from a networking workshop some years ago:

    1. If you’re doing business cards, consistently keep YOUR cards in one pocket, OTHER PEOPLES’ in the other pocket. That way you won’t accidentally pull out someone else’s card when you’re trying to hand off yours. Of course this does assume that you’re wearing something with pockets.

    2. If you’re attending a reception with food and drink, only carry a plate of food OR a drink at any given time, preferably holding it in your left hand so you don’t have to juggle to shake hands. Also suggest eating BEFORE drinking; if you are really hungry, fill a plate and find a quiet spot to chow down.

  93. Heidi*

    One thing I’ve found helps generate conversation is to tell a story or talk about something first so that the other person has something to respond to. I’m usually in the middle of reading a book, so I’ll often talk about that. I recently read a book about a KGB officer who defected to Britain during the Cold War, which got the conversation going about the 80’s and how close we were or weren’t to nuclear war. Nothing to do with our field, but sometimes it’s refreshing to talk about something else.

  94. Roscoe da Cat*

    If you are a graduate student, be prepared for people who are running internships or entry programs to start asking you about your interests. I work for an agency that runs a big internship programs and we are always scoping for new interns!

  95. Caroline*

    The best advice I ever got for attending conferences as an introvert: Make a presentation. Oral for preference, but poster also works. That might sound *more* intimidating, but consider: You get to prepare a presentation in advance, unlike unstructured chit-chat. And when you make a presentation, people start conversations with *you* — you no longer have to awkwardly figure out how to start conversations with *them*. And the conversations are on a topic you know about, because they ask questions about your presentation. It’s actually a *fantastic* way to get the conversation ball rolling.

    And when you’re attending someone else’s presentation, don’t be afraid to ask questions that feel “stupid” to you. The presenter may assume knowledge you don’t have, but that doesn’t mean you *should* have that knowledge. The truth it, they will likely be *thrilled* to get to explain it. Everyone likes talking about their thing, and introducing newbies to their thing.

    (This is easier for me at posters than in oral presentation sessions, because at posters I’m talking one-on-one with the presenter, whereas in sessions I’m asking my question in front of the whole audience. But you can always find the speaker after the session and ask if they have time to chat a bit more.)

    Very occasionally — and only in some fields, usually especially-gatekept academic fields — you may run into someone who is rude to people who ask what they think is a “stupid” question, or someone who tries to give you a pop quiz. If that happens, remember that *they* are out of line, not you, and politely excuse yourself from the conversation. But that has happened to me only once in 20 years. Truly, most people are just excited to chat with other people interested in their thing.

  96. Dork-e-ness*

    Pick a different table to sit at for meals if possible as you will maximize the number of people you chat with. Super important if you attend with your work group. I talk to them all the time. I’ve never talked with the people at this table before.

  97. Michelle Smith*

    For the love of everything holy, BUY COMFORTABLE SHOES. I cannot emphasize enough how much it sucks to need to get across a convention center (or worse – hotel + convention center combo) quickly and your feet are screaming with blisters. There are professional looking shoes that are comfortable (I wear Walking Cradles because I need orthopedic support and extra wide width, but experiment with what works for you). Test the shoes out in advance and makes sure that you’d be comfortable wearing them all day and walking a mile or more (broken up across the day, of course).

    I have a specific professional backpack from Samsonite that I travel to conferences with. It helps me keep everything organized and is easy to carry despite the fact that I use a cane and so need to stay balanced (large purses are horrible for me). I put my computer, water bottle, notepad, wallet, and hygiene supplies in there. I also struggle to balance things on my lap, so I invested in a tripod standing desk from Intension Design. It unfortunately doesn’t fit in my backpack, but I will lug it out if the conference sessions are in a setting where tables aren’t available (some will just be rows of chairs so you can fit more people into a small space). It’s heavy for me, but it’s worth not spending 7 hours trying to take notes on my lap while my legs go numb.

    I would also stress how much nicer it is to be in the conference hotel if you can swing it. Not only is there usually a discount, but you can walk to sessions instead of having to work out transportation. You’re able to take advantage of more opportunities to socialize and network and you don’t have to rush quite as much after breaks. You also have a much easier time going back to your room to grab the chapstick you forgot or taking a break from all the noise and action if you’re sleeping in the same building as the conference.

    Business cards aren’t nearly as important in my experience as they used to be. I’ve not exchanged them at either of the conferences I’ve been to in the past year. Most people are just connecting on their phones these days it seems, but there’s nothing wrong with carrying them just in case. I just wouldn’t spend much money or time on them. Customize your LinkedIn URL and update your privacy settings to make it super easy for people to add you just based on your name and photo.

    Some conferences have apps. If yours does, download it in advance and check it before each session. It can be annoying to show up to a room for a breakout session only to find out once you’ve been sitting there for 5 minutes that the room you actually wanted to be in has changed! Pay attention to any posted signs if there isn’t an app to notify you of changes. I also find it useful to plot out an agenda for myself if there are a lot of sessions. For example, a conference program I received last year was over 300 pages long (not exaggerating). I did not need to waste time flipping through that while I was there – I looked up what I might be interested in attending before I got there and wrote it down (I like to organize my trips in One Note so I can have all my information in one spot along with my notes).

    I would also suggest building in time, if you can, to see the city you’re going to be in. Particularly if you’ve never been there before, it can be a nice time to see a new part of the country. You’ll probably not want to do this on days of the conference sessions unless you have some that are particularly light, but coming in early the day before (like arriving in town at 11 am on the day when registration and a reception starts at 5 pm) or leaving the day after the conference ends can be a way to extend your trip and allow you to see a couple of sights with minimal increase to the cost to you.

    1. Michelle Smith*

      My comment is already too long, but I do want to also mention that hotels in my experience are generally very accommodating. I haven’t had anyone yet tell me it was too early to check into my room and I’ve never had to pay so far for them to hold my luggage after my check-out time but before I needed to leave for the airport. YMMV, but know that you at a minimum should be able to get your luggage held if you arrive before your room is ready or need to check out before the last conference session on your last day.

  98. E. Chauvelin*

    My autistic self thinks conferences are the easiest place to make conversations with strangers. The scripting is incredibly easy. Near the beginning of the conference, ask people what sessions they’re going to/what they’re most looking forward to. Near the end, ask people what they’ve found the most interesting. In between you can mix it up. If it’s the kind of conference that also involves people on association committees having meetings, whether or not they have meetings to attend is another option.

    One “don’t” I’d recommend is don’t ask people questions that only the top people in the organization would be likely to know off the top of their head unless you’ve already established that kind of thing is within the scope of what they’re dealing with. A few times over the course of my conference going career somebody’s asked me how many cardholders my library has, which is not the kind of thing that an individual librarian who isn’t even a manager in a system with about twenty locations is likely to have on the tip of their tongue.

  99. IBG*

    Here’s my list of super practical advice.
    1. Always have one hand free. You have a drink or food, but never both.
    2. Your business cards fit in the back of a name tag pouch. Have a handy supply.
    3. Get all the cards you can. At the end of the night, make notes on the back about the person – how they might be helpful, what you talked about, etc.
    4. When in doubt, start with another person in the corner looking lost. They’ll be grateful you started a conversation and that nucleus can grow.
    5. Follow up. Email the people whose cards you collected. Have a call to action – I’d like to connect and this is my availability. Connect on LinkedIn.

  100. Chickaletta*

    Late to the comments here, but a great way to have on-hand conversation topics is by listening to podcasts! I especially like ones that focus on in-depth news or off-beat informational but interesting topics, for example, check out This American Life, Freakenomics, Hidden Brain, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Find some that interest you, they don’t need to be related to your field. Without even realizing it you’ll start finding you have interesting topics at hand that can become great conversation starters.

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