9a. Talking can be learnt
One thing that took us a while to realize is that many of the things relating to conferences, socializing and as such also networking can actually be practiced and learnt. Some things come easier to some people, and for us personally, smalltalk never was easy (and still isn’t) - leading to a misconception that some people are just better at talking and that’s how it is and always will be. Not true! Just like any other skill, making conversation, and learning how to bridge that step from “strangers” to “friends” can be learnt and practiced. Here is what to do:
- Research “small talk” in general and understand its importance
- Research some topics or questions that might be good things to bring up in casual conversations, possibly relating to the industry or conference at hand
- Observe how others do it. This is a huge one. Pay attention to what kind of questions other people ask, how they ask it, how they respond. Which behaviours encourage conversations to keep flowing (i.e. bouncing related questions back and forth), which ones make it harder (i.e. one-word answers and yes/no questions)? Observe how people who are good at talking handle challenging situations. Do they pick up on key words you mentioned and ask more about that? Do they maybe have a set of random fun questions prepared to throw in if awkward silences creep up? There is a lot to learn just by observing, even the topic of “how to talk” might be a possible topic to talk about with someone. If things don’t go too well and maybe a conversation comes to an awkward stop and you part ways, that’s fine too - try to understand why it happened, and what you could have done differently to keep the conversation going. Again, just like art and life in general, it’s all about learning and growing, failing and trying again. Not every conversation is meant to be - don’t beat yourself up over it!
9b. Conversation Openers / Examples
Here are some examples of beginner-level topics and questions that come up a lot at the conferences we’ve been to so far (other than “Hi, how are you” and exchange names):
- Beginning of Conference: Is this your first time at [Conference / Country]? Are you here on your own? Which [talk, speaker, event] are you looking forward to? What brings you to this conference? How was your trip here? How do you feel?
- Mid-Conference: How do you like it so far? How did you like [Event/Lecture]? Which was your favourite [Lecture/Event/Conference-Activity] so far? Which [Lecture/etc] are you going to next? Did you try [Conference Activity / Demo] yet?
- End of Conference: How did you like this year’s [Conference]? Any take-aways? What’s the coolest thing you learnt? Are you planning on coming back to [Conference] next year? Do you have any other conferences planned or can recommend any?
These are easy ways to get a conversation going and get over that initial awkward stage with strangers. They can also be great to catch up with someone you talked with earlier during the conference, when you already went through the “who are you, what do you do” questions - particularly if you don’t quite remember everything you may have talked about (it happens!).
Other possible topics are that work any time: Asking about what they do, where they’re from, how they got into their line of work, having a look at the other person’s sketchbook, reel or portfolio. Ask for personal projects or if they’re working on anything exciting lately (that they are allowed to talk about), or what they plan on doing after getting back home.
When being asked questions yourself, remember to ask things back, same question or different one. Avoid one-word or yes/no answers and opt for a sentence instead, it helps keeping conversations going. Always have a good reply ready for the question “So, what do you do?”.
Conversations don’t have to happen only in dedicated “hangout areas” like afterparty, pub or the like. Particularly if loud and crowded places feel too intimidating, it can help to find ways to strike up conversations in a more comfortable setting: Some good opportunities to strike up conversations include a waiting queue for lectures of food, the bar when picking up courage whiskey, or with people sitting nearby at a panel before or after the talk. When there is a party or crowded mingling happening, staying near the edge makes it easier to hear each other.
10. Take Notes
This one is pretty self-explanatory - write down anything you might not remember. People’s names, important bits you talked about with someone, lecture notes, or even a revelation or inspiration that might have occurred to you during a lecture or conversation - there is a lot of input at conferences, and particularly with multi-day events, things tend to feel like a big blur after a while. We like to take mini-notes during the day, and again at the end of each day, making a little log of people we spoke with and would like to stay in contact with, and anything else we’d like to think over again at a later point.
Somewhat related: It’s no shame to forget things anyway! We’re still struggling a lot keeping up with people’s names. So far, we haven’t met anyone who took offence at asking for their name a second (or even third…oops) time. It is helpful to repeat people’s names after they introduce themselves to you, or ask if you could read it on their conference tag. Even better: Exchanging business cards! You can even bring sticky notes to attach notes directly to someone’s card.
Full disclaimer: If you’re new to all of this, don’t worry too much about repeating people’s names or the like. Introductions are like everything else in this guide - they become easier with time. It took both Johanna and Yen several conferences to get to a point where they can remember names for longer than a second - at their first conference experiences, they were so busy remembering how to say “Hi, I’m Johanna/Yen!” that they didn’t even hear anyone else’s name.
11. To Break or Not to Break
At conferences, it can easily seem like people are out and about for 24 hours a day. At all times, there will be someone meeting up for breakfast, in lectures, lunch break, afternoon activities, dinner, and of course mingling and/or drinking at night, which can go on for hours. It’s very easy to fall into the “FOMO” trap - the fear of missing out - when not present everywhere, all the time. However, that is impossible, and pacing yourself is very important - it’s no use burning yourself out on day one. It’s good to remember that just because “someone” is always out doesn’t mean “everyone” is out all the time. The important part here is finding what works for yourself - some people prefer taking very few breaks and staying “on” from morning to night because starting again is harder than being tired, others like taking frequent breaks, or retreat to their hotel room to recharge because burning out is a real problem. Some feel their best mingling with alcohol at night while resting during the day, others prefer finding/joining groups for eating, and some might prefer do it all at the conference grounds and rely on getting a lot of sleep during the night.
One concern that can creep up is “I paid all this money to get here, I shouldn’t take a break”. This is a valid point, and it’s true that those conferences are a time and place to try hard and make the best from the experience. But in the end, and in the long run, you won’t profit from traumatizing yourself, and pushing past your breaking point. Do you best, push outside of your comfort zone, but also respect if you can’t go further. “Respecting your limits” is not the same as “giving up” or “being bad at this”!
If you need privacy and your hotel room is too far away, or you don’t want to go there, some other options: Take a coffee break or go to the bathroom, take a walk in a park nearby.
With all of these suggestions, there is no right and wrong, and it will take some experimenting to find the sweet spot for yourself. That sweet spot might even vary depending on if you’re going alone or with a friend.
Always keep in mind: You can just leave if you feel overwhelmed or stretching your limits too far. Retreat, find a private spot or your hotel room and take care of yourself.
12. Team up… or not
There are three ways of approaching conferences and each has their benefits and disadvantages.
- Going with good friends: This can feel a lot safer and less scary because you already have some connections. The pitfall is that it is a bit harder to join existing groups or meeting new people when you’re already paired up than if you’re on your own, and you might miss out on making new connections. You will also have to coordinate between different interests, goals for the conference, schedules, and energy levels - if those are mismatched, there is a danger of pushing past your personal limits while trying to keep up with your friends. Of course, you can always go to the conference together, but split up if necessary - getting the best of two worlds!
- Going alone, but arranging meetings with people beforehand (friends or strangers): This can help similarly to going with friends, but can also put more pressure on the whole experience. For Johanna’s first workshop alone, she was too intimidated to even let anyone know she was going.
- Going alone: This is by far the scariest option, but also one with great benefits. Being responsible only for yourself and knowing that nobody has any expectations of you can be very freeing, knowing you know you can leave at any time. As a lone person it’s also easiest to make new connections - many people tend to prefer approaching people who are on their own over people who are already standing in a group. Use this to your advantage by looking approachable and not-busy: Put away your phone, and smile at people while working up the courage to say hi to someone.
Again, this is something that varies a lot depending on circumstances and personal preferences. Listen to your gut, and focus on the advantages of whichever way you end up doing this.
13. After the conference
After the conference is over, it’s follow-up time: Add people on social networks (if you didn’t during the conference already), maybe write a little message to them. (This is where your previous note-taking comes in handy!).
Write a little private review for yourself: What techniques or situations worked for you, what didn’t work, what do you wish you had done different? You can refer back to this the next time you prefer for a conference again. Also go over your notes and make additions as needed.
Keep in mind that every conference is different: Scope, feeling, people attending, activities, venue, amount of lectures/alcohol consumption/networking opportunities, duration, location. In the beginning it is very hard to judge which ones suit you most, but it’s good to try out different things, ask people who went for their experiences, and don’t be discouraged if you realise that some don’t work for you.
Lastly, allow yourself some time to heal. Any social event can be really exhausting and stressful for introverts, and career related ones can put a lot of pressure on the whole experience. Treat yourself! Johanna has a secret deal with herself to gift herself one artbook for every major conference she survives.
14. The End
Congratulations! You made it to the end of this guide. All of this is a lot to take in, particularly if you haven’t been to any conference before. Keep in mind that the whole experience can be broken down into smaller, more accessible steps. Do your homework, and remember that you’re not alone in being scared, but you *can* do it regardless, and will come out stronger the other side. We hope that with this guide, we can take away a little bit of the fear and give you some actual tools to feel more prepared.
Many of these tips relate to shifting your mindset and perspective, which is a long time effort, but will pay off in the end. Work on building your confidence even outside of conferences - again, it takes time, but will come in useful in almost all life situations. Find your modus operandi! Which tricks work for you personally?
If this guide was helpful, please share it, so others can profit from it too! If you have any suggestions or additional tips, please leave them in the comments. Let us know what works for you!
Thank you and best of luck out there!
Yen & Johanna
- Best Case / Worst Case Scenario Exercise: http://www.muddycolors.com/2017/08/a-note-on-confidence/
- Try reframing your negative stress to a more positive mindset (but take the research with a grain of salt): https://www.ted.com/talks/kelly_mcgonigal_how_to_make_stress_your_friend
- Extensive Networking Guide for Game Events http://tinysubversions.com/2005/10/effective-networking-in-the-games-industry-introduction/
- The Meditations by Marcus Aurelius - a good book to read to clear one’s mind when stressed out