conference attendees networking in a hallway
Not everyone is a born networker, so here are some simple ways to break the ice PHOTO: Jeff Callen

Being a journalist I find myself at many events and conferences. These places where subject matter experts and professionals who work in their field gather to share stories, strategies and challenges. If you're like many, approaching a stranger and striking up conversation may not feel all that natural for you. As a reporter I've always got questions, which makes it a little more challenging. Let me give you an example.

I was a reporter at a local paper and all I wanted was a quote for my article from Rodney Harrison of the New England Patriots. In the Patriots clubhouse at Gillette Stadium, I approached Harrison and asked, “Rodney?” as I hovered close by as he sat down to change out of his practice gear. “I have a one-on-one,” he said. I didn’t leave and being a tenacious reporter I started again, “Wondering if you’ve got a second for a question on….”

“Hey, man,” Harrison interrupted me, “I told you, I have a one-on-one!” I got the message. He had an interview scheduled and it wasn’t with me. I left feeling horrified but I learned from that experience.

Challenge of Human-to-Human Approach

Approaching another human coldly is challenging. It’s the very same challenge we frequently encounter at tech conferences. It’s easy to say we want to network but it’s a lot harder to execute. Am I interrupting this person? What do I say first? Is there something on my face? Did I remember to grab a mint or two after that tuna salad sandwich during lunch? 

How in the heck do you even start a conversation? 

There are some great tips out on the Internet about how to network at a business conference: bring business cards, set an agenda, make strong eye contact. One survey from the Content Marketing Institute solicited hundreds of ideas from conference regulars about networking at a conference. Some of the more thoughtful responses included, "Be real. Be genuinely psyched to hear about the other person’s passions. Curiosity sparks collaboration.”

These are all great tips, for sure, but where should you start?

But HOW Do I Start to Network?

The tips in this article are more about the “how.” How in the world do you approach a stranger? I’ve been to a few business conferences myself. I’ve been on the attendee/reporter side and as a host. Following up on Deb Lavoy’s terrific advice for making the most of your conference booth, here are my tips for approaching people and hopefully getting some value out of your business-conference interactions:

Use Digital to Set Up Meeting

If you’re terrified of the cold, in-person approach, you can avoid this by establishing a digital connection. Download your conference app, find people you’d like to connect with and ping them. Shoot them a note: “Noticed you’ve got a similar role. What sessions have you attended?” The conversation could then lead to an opportunity to suggest an in-person meeting. “Wanna meet for lunch?”

Social is another great place to reach out to attendees as well. Know the conference hashtag and see what people are saying. Reply to their tweet or perhaps ask for a follow and continue the conversation in direct-messaging. Maybe the conversation progresses to in-person. Maybe you keep it digital. Either way, it’s a connection.

Twitter search is awesome, too. If you’re looking for someone to talk to with a specific need, search that on Twitter with and without the hashtag. 

Lunch Is Your Friend

I found people to be more approachable on full stomachs. The conference lunch is an amazing opportunity to establish connections. Start with small talk. “These cupcakes are insane, right?” “I always eat fancy lunches like this as a remote worker. How about you? Haha.”

Then ease into business. “How did you like the keynote this morning?”

I’m not a big fan of the those who throw their business card at someone at the lunch table before even saying hello. But it is pretty customary to give your card once the conversation progresses. Don’t have a card? No problem, ask them if you can connect on LinkedIn or if you can take a quick pic of their conference badge.

Lunch, Part 2: Cracking the Party

You know what’s really hard? Showing up late to the lunch table and discovering one conversation in full swing to your left and another to your right. How do you crack that when your table mates seem like best friends? You're always thinking, "They must be colleagues." Usually, they're not. They've just hit it off already. And you missed it. This a tough social nut to crack, I’ll admit. Outside of grabbing one of their french fries, it’s hard to get the focus on you. 

I’d suggest waiting for a quiet moment and then approaching the entire group, as opposed to one of the pack. This way, you’re not stealing one wolf from the already-established pack. You’re inviting the group to chat, but, in reality, you’re really inviting yourself into their group.

Try to avoid using your phone at the lunch table, too. You may as well turn your back on someone. No one will talk to you. They figure you don't want to. 

Ask for directions

If you’ve got an idea on approaching someone during a break or in the hallway, asking for directions to a session or room can be a conversation starter. “Excuse me. Do you know where Conference Room Malibu is?” “Cool. Thanks. Which session are you heading to?” And so it goes …

Keep it Basic: Handshake and Hello

Another approach to the in-person conversation starter? Keep it basic and old-fashioned. “Hi there, Dom Nicastro.” At this point, unless their lives are a series of Monday mornings and they walk away, that person will accept the handshake and invitation to chat.

This is one of the more challenging ones for some of us, “I just can’t do that. I’m terrified.”  I, too, struggle with the timing and approach on this one. It’s the most basic, but probably most challenging one. “Just do it,” is not great advice, I recognize. But this one, you just have to make it happen. This is a networking environment. People expect to be approached.

Now what? A great followup question, I’ve found, is “So you here for education or inspiration?” It’s gotta be one of the two, right? OK, someone could say, “To get away from my spouse.” But that’s a GREAT conversation-starter too, right? 

The "education or inspiration" question always yields some interesting results for me. You’ll get people telling you about a tool they’re looking at, or a session they recommend.

Make it to Breakfast

And not just because it’s the most important meal of the day. You’ll find breakfast attendees ready to mingle, provided the coffee is already flowing. 

Why? They’re not exhausted from the daily conference grind. Nothing is more exhausting than talking to people all day. Not because it’s not fun, but because it’s literally exhausting on the brain. At an actual live business conference, we have to be “on” all day, whereas, say, a remote worker doesn’t really have to be “on” all day. It’s quite a transformation at these events mingling with thousands of people after being with your dogs most of the work day.

Get to the Booze

Most of the rules can be thrown out the window when you throw in some good ole beer and wine into the mix. Get to the happy hour. If you don’t drink, even better. You’ll be sharp. Take advantage. Everyone’s got their guard down. If you do drink, ask someone for a toast by offering up your drink glass or beer bottle in their direction. It's perfectly acceptable. It's not like your toasting with your mocha latte to the person next to you at Starbucks. Everyone’s always up for a good alcohol glass-clanking connection.