The Insider Track
A guide to using kindness to elevate your conference experience.
Get your sticker collections, backup batteries and ironic nerd mashup t-shirts ready, because it’s tech conference season!
We’re gearing up for one of our favorite conferences of the year, and we’ve been spending a lot of time discussing what it means to have an amazing conference experience. We’re incredibly stoked to see our favorite thought leaders, community gurus and internet celebs BLOW OUR MINDS with the new hotness and poignant epiphanies, but to properly set expectations, that is not what this article is about.
If you’ve got your ticket secured, you or your company has invested in the opportunity to create shared experiences with strangers from all over the world who happen to be passionate about the same things you are. You’ve pressed pause on your life and traveled far from home to connect, grow and recharge your techie batteries. You are here to be inspired to innovate and to uncover new opportunities for yourself or for your company.
Conferences are about community and community is all about participation. If you are attending a conference strictly for the speaker line up, you will likely have a better experience streaming the conference from home. You’ll definitely get a better seat. But, if you want to fly home feeling like you just had the best three days of your life, after a whirlwind of fascinating interactions with people you once called strangers and now call friends, you have the conference spirit and it’s time to supercharge your experience.
Let’s back up a bit.
In a past life, before my development career, I was a sales rep for a large tech company. Once or twice a year, the company’s 700 or so sales and vendor reps from all over the country would converge on Austin for a three day Carnaval of hyper-charged networking events that included extravagant parties, loud showboating at awards shows, loads of vendor swag, and lots and lots of people who lived life at a completely different pace than I did.
I spent a good amount of time at these events hiding in the restroom, recharging my introvert batteries so that I could put my extrovert mask back on. I’d then wade back into the crowd with a crazed smile painted on my face, feeling both overstimulated and exhausted at the same time. Sometimes I just stayed in my hotel room instead of going to the evening events.
It was only after several of these conferences that I finally figured out where my limits were, what my goals for the conference were, and how I could be empowered to avoid the things that exhausted me, so I could focus on the parts that were incredibly fun, inspiring and rewarding. I learned that I needed to be much more intentional with my time and energy.
Participation Over Observation
What worked for me was the decision to be a participant, not just an observer. When I was intentional about participating, I felt in control and was able to keep my energy up and my interactions positive. Each positive interaction fed into the next, inoculating me against the occasional not so awesome interaction. I left those events feeling like I was on top of the world. I learned there was a formula I could follow to dramatically enhance my experience and improve the opportunities I came away with after the conference.
I’ve followed this formula at tech meet-ups and conferences for the past three years. It’s required very little tweaking. What was once a survival mechanism for me and has now evolved into an empowerment tool I use to forge strong connections with people who might be my next client, hire or boss. It’s required very little tweaking because it’s based on something pretty constant – sales. And sales is based on humans.
You are a sales rep.
Face it, when you attend a conference, you are selling. This truth is scary for a lot of people in our industry. Sales sounds like something reserved for the pathologically extroverted among us. Luckily, it’s a myth that you have to be incredibly outgoing to be a successful salesperson. It may help you get started, but it is not how you close a deal. You can’t get someone to buy something by tricking them or by intimidating them into cracking open a checkbook. You’ve probably hung up on that sales person. They probably get hung up on a lot. And that’s because sales is an exercise in investigation. It’s the art of uncovering the intersection between someone else’s needs and something you can offer. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to watch a skilled salesperson work their magic, you may have discovered that they do significantly less talking than you might expect. Most of their words are likely leaving their mouth in the form of questions.
While you may not be pushing products at a conference, you are peddling memorable experiences and positive impressions. Impressions that may lead to your next hire, your next client, or your next job opportunity. You’re selling the idea that you are someone others would like to work with. You’re selling the idea that you would be great to sit next to all day and someone who would be fun to collaborate with.
If this is not your first conference rodeo, you probably remember that guy that seemed like he knew and was adored by everyone at the conference. He was invited to do everything and was everywhere you went. While it may be true that this person naturally has some genetic defect that makes them fearless or has been sprinkled with some kind of unicorn magic, it is far more likely that they have just figured out the formula. It’s a formula that will likely keep them gainfully employed for the rest of their working life, regardless of their objective level of technical skill, and it’s surprisingly straightforward.
Focus your energy on making someone else’s day better. Do that with every* person you meet.
This sounds fluffy, and it is. I’ve distilled it down into a mantra that I can repeat to myself when I walk into a big room filled with strangers. It’s just a rephrasing of exactly what sales is: Uncover what someone else needs and figure out what you have to meet that need. The implementation of this mantra is what I call The Formula. Sometimes I use all of these tools and sometimes I just choose pieces for a specific setting. It took me a while to work up to using the entire list. I recommend trying out one or two that feel most comfortable at first and see how your experience changes. Then, try a few more.
Part 1 - Setting the Stage
1. Wave hello.
The conference you are attending almost certainly has some social media channels associated with it. A couple days before a conference, start to make your presence known on social media by sending a message about how excited you are to be going to the conference. Thank the organizers or share helpful tips for getting to the venue or finding parking. Share a good place to eat that you discovered. Mention people you are excited to meet up with. Establish yourself as a friendly and welcoming person and people will be significantly more likely to reach out to you or be brave enough to walk up to you. Something that often gets overlooked is that your social media picture should be an actual recent picture of yourself. It’s how people find you in person or friend you after a positive interaction.
2. Make an itinerary.
Come up with a list of things you want to do or see while you’re at the conference. Pick out the talks you want to be sure to see, and pick some times to break off into the “Hallway Track.” Some of the best interactions you can have at a conference take place in the quieter lulls when most people are watching talks. The Hallway Track offers a smaller pool of people to converse with. Find several restaurants, bars, after hours events, and recreation spots you’d like to visit. When people are huddled together after talks trying to decide on a place to go, offer an assertive choice. You’ll get to do what you wanted to do, and people will appreciate that they didn’t have to play the “I don’t know, what do you want to do” game. It also gives you an easy way to invite the people you’ve had good interactions with to share specialized experiences with you.
3. Wear a costume.
This is an old sales trick. The Formula is about pushing past your comfort zone. Being outside your comfort zone can be incredibly exhausting. It’s actually incredibly difficult for most humans not to dwell on what people think of you. You are intentionally putting yourself in a vulnerable position. I’ve had a lot of success with costumes. This doesn’t mean you should parade about in a feather boa or a mask. It just has to be something that lets you be a little bit of someone else while you’re trying to overcome being more of yourself. Sometimes, this is just a different hairstyle for me, or a new pair of shoes, or wearing something that reminds me of someone I love. It helps me get into my extrovert character, when my comfort zone would be to quietly sit in the back row.
Part 2 - Finding Positive Interactions
1. Ask, don’t tell.
Small talk is the single hardest and most exhausting part of meeting new people. The trick to making it through this uncomfortable part of an interaction is to power through it with questions. Remind yourself that your goal is to figure out who this person is, what their goals are and what stands between them and achieving those goals. Your goal is not to impress them. You actually have very little control over that part. What you do have control over is your level of engagement with this new person. People are interested in people who are interested in them. People like people who like them. Asking someone about what’s important to them is the best and fastest way to have a positive interaction. In a good interaction, that person will reciprocate and ask you about what’s important to you.
Not everyone is going to be open to interacting with you, and that is totally okay. Your goal is to give them the opportunity to engage with you. If they don’t reciprocate or you don’t feel like it is going to be a positive interaction, it is perfectly okay to move on to speaking with someone else. Try not to take it personally. It’s pretty difficult to tease out why someone might not want to talk to you. The best part about conferences is that there are a whole lot of people. The next person you speak to is probably going to be open to a conversation.
2. Be the includer.
This is my favorite tool. It’s easier for some than others, and that’s okay. Give it a try and see how it goes. If you’ve been in a particular industry for a while, it can be very tempting to spend most of your time at a conference with people you already know. You should definitely spend some time hanging out with the people you know and like, but you should also be actively figuring out how to connect those people with others you know – or better yet, with nice people you just met. Sit down at a table with people you don’t know. Invite someone that is sitting alone to sit with you. Invite people to go do something fun via social media. The more people you connect, the more those people will connect you with others. The best part is that if those people were nice, it’s likely that the people they introduce you to will also be nice.
Satistically, any time you are at an event with a lot of people, some minor subset of those people are not nice people. If someone engages you and you do not feel safe or they make you feel inferior or ashamed, quickly break that engagement and find someone else to talk to. If you see someone else having a bad interaction, offer them a safe escape and invite them to join you.
3. Play the yes game.
You’ve just a couple of days to soak up as many opportunities and experiences as possible. If you’re lucky enough to be offered an invitation and you don’t have an incredibly compelling reason to turn it down (unmovable conflict, you feel unsafe or you do not trust the person inviting you), say yes. It helps to think of this as a game. It will encourage you to try something you might otherwise bow out of. I’m a little scared of hack sessions. I play the yes game and I make myself go at conferences. It has always ended up being super fun. Bring a buddy if you are feeling timid! It’s a perfect opportunity to be an includer. These invitations are almost always where the greatest opportunities are hiding.
Part 3 - Reinforcing Positive Interactions
1. Reward bravery.
Remind yourself that everyone you meet at a conference is being brave. If someone is brave enough to come talk to you, engage them! If you are lucky enough to get to talk to one of the speakers or organizers, thank them for the time and effort they poured into sharing something they care about with you. Publicly praising the brave people you’ve talked to on social media is a great way to reinforce the confidence needed to take risks and be brave.
2. Follow up.
Conferences are a whirlwind tour. Everyone you meet has met hundreds of people in a matter of days. If you uncovered an opportunity, don’t wait to follow up. Before you go to sleep each night, queue up emails or social media touches to follow up with the people you met. Say thank you to the people that helped make your experience great. If someone offered you advice or encouraged you to try something new, reach back out to them to let them know you followed their advice and what the outcome was.
Community is about participation.
Conferences are about community, and community is all about participation. Participation happens on a spectrum. If you are attending your first conference or you’re just working up to making the jump from spectator to participant, assess your limits. Don’t go gangbusters on your first try. Pick a few strategies that sound like they might be in your wheelhouse and make that your first step. If those work well for you, try something you’re a little more uncomfortable with. If all you can manage is to be kind to the people that talk to you, you’ve done your part to help build a positive community. If you can help one or two or twenty people have a wonderful conference experience, you’ll walk away with some fantastic new contacts, some inspiring new ideas, enhanced confidence and perhaps a solid professional opportunity or two.
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