If you ever go to a professional conference, here’s what you see: 90% of the people attending have their phone at their ear or their fingertips, avoiding eye contact at all costs. It’s weak, y’all.

I’ve written about this before, but, as the fall conference season heats up, I gotta try again. The true gold of a conference is the opportunity to create or widen a professional network. These are folks you can learn from, bounce ideas off of, meet for an occasional happy hour, and maybe even work with one day. Making connections is critical to your career, your well being, and your learning. Period. Make it happen.

So, how do you do it? First, get over yourself. Not to be mean, but honestly, nobody cares, so if someone doesn’t respond to your chit chat, it doesn’t matter. This isn’t reality TV, no one is watching. Just go talk to someone else. Second, recognize that mostly people really do want to connect, find a commonality, have a laugh. Reaching out is a little gift that you’re giving their day.

Here are some harmless ways to start a conversation:

 

  • If Wile-e can pull these off, you can, too.

Compliment something, if you mean it. People often work to look their best at conferences, so if you truly like someone’s bag or shoes or dress, tell them! It’s a good way to get a conversation started. It doesn’t cost anything to be nice. *Note – this can be a little awkward. Once, an acquaintance came up to me at a national HR conference and, I guess, finding nothing else nice to say, exclaimed, “You got waxed! Your eyebrows look great.” Not a lot of opportunity for follow up there…

Go with the context. What seminar are they thinking of attending next? Did they go to the conference bookstore and have a look around? What did they think of the keynote?

Find commonalities. She likes jewelry made from bottle caps, you MAKE jewelry from can tabs. See, you have lots of things to talk about already!

Go meta, if you must – “I know I’d like to meet some people here, but it feels awkward to meet strangers. How have you typically networked at things like this?”

Basically, just relax. Relax, make eye contact, and listen. Look for an opening, something that makes the other person’s eyes light up a little, and ask more about that.

BFFs now? Great! Before you end the conversation, let them know you’d like to get in touch again, and give them your card or tell them where they can find you online. If they don’t give you one back, it’s fine, they may not have any. Make a note of their name in case they get in contact. If you get a card or contact info, follow up two weeks to a month later with a brief note about something relevant to your conversation, and see where things go from there. Keep it light.

If you’re getting a lot of people looking around for an escape when you introduce yourself,  you might be falling into one of the insecurity traps associated with meeting strangers. Here are a few traps to watch out for.

I wish I had these cards.

Don’t brag. (“I’m the youngest VP of the largest company in Florida. Here’s my Precious my business card.”)
Don’t humble-brag. (“You have two kids? And no help? I don’t know how I could raise my three without my nannies.”)
Don’t name drop. (“Oh really? You just started as an HR Clerk at Walmart? Then you must know Prithi W? She’s the VP of Supply Chain for Walmart Corporate, I think she reports directly to Bill Simon, Walmart’s CEO? We’re GREAT friends.”)
Don’t complain. (“Yeah, these conferences are okay, but the food is terrible. I wish we could get better sandwiches, after all, we’ll never eat again and we couldn’t possibly bring our own or go off campus. Let’s whine about the chips together.”)

You look insecure and weak when you show that you feel you MUST establish dominance through status, who you know, or criticizing something you didn’t create. You may think you’re playing it off, but you’re not. Nobody is impressed, and you just made them either judge themselves for not being such a rock star, or judge you for showing your insecure side. You want both parties to walk away from the conversation feeling good!  The best conversationalists are secure enough to make the conversation mostly about the other person, and are gracious and supportive.

If you’re headed to HRFlorida or the National Nonprofit HR Conference, I’ll see you there. And say hello! Just don’t ask me about my facial hair.