Last week I attended devopsdays Minneapolis. It was my first time attending and I had a blast. There were over 900 attendees and I survived.
When I meet new people, they are often surprised to learn I am an introvert. I just pretend to be a people person for work, conferences, and meetups. I have a set of ten simple rules and conversation templates that I use to help me navigate large networking events without getting burned out.
You will be awkward.
It feels awkward. I was never the little kid who could run up and ask someone to play. Just embrace that awkward feeling. The more you network at events, the less awkward it will feel and the less awkward you will be.
Walk up to someone, wait for your turn/pause in conversation, say "Hi! I am X. I wanted to say I liked/loved your ..."
This ties in with 1. Compliment only things that people CHOSE.
So if you loved a blog post, tweet, their dyed hair, their dress, go for it and say so. People will often happily take compliments and expand on that topic. Suddenly you are in a conversation! Go you!
Wear a conversation piece.
If going up to people is too difficult, wear a conversation piece so they will come up to you instead. Now people have a topic to ask you about. This can be as simple as wearing a code dress or shirt, distinctive glasses, pins, or a purple t-shirt with "My name is X. This shirt is purple."
Always leave room in a group conversation for one more person.
This is also known as the Pac-Man Rule.
Instead of talking in a closed circle, the shape of the group looks more like a Pac-Man with an open wedge for someone to come in and fill. By leaving space in your group for another person, you are giving explicit permission for them to join the group. This helps to get over that "Am I interrupting?" feeling. Look for Pac-Mans to join.
A small hand wave is totally an acceptable way to say "hi" or "bye".
Sometimes someone will be in a conversation and you wanted to talk to them but don't want to wait. Feel free to do a small wave and/or head nod and walk away.
If you need to escape for a while, do so!
Find a quiet space to rest, go for a walk, sit and read or journal, etc. Some conferences (like devopsdays Minneapolis) have quiet rooms expressly for this purpose. You will get burned out, so take time to recharge.
Give yourself permission to leave early. You do not need to go to every session and workshop. Take care of yourself.
Vendor tables are a great place to practice conversation skills. They WANT to talk.
"Hi! I am interested in XYZ, can you tell me more?"
"Hi! Can you tell me more about what your company does?"
"Hi! Do you have any current job openings? What skills are you looking for?"
Business cards are your friend.
Print some up, hand them out, and take them from others. I often scribble the conversation topic I had with the person on their card. That way I know what we chatted about.
Thank people for their time.
It is work to be on all day. I thank people when I leave the conversation, I also try to send a follow up thank you in an email or tweet. This is where collecting business cards comes in handy.
Schedule a recovery day for after the conference.
I try to leave the day after the conference free so I can spend all day in my blanket fort recovering. It takes a lot of energy for me to be social all day long. I usually spend the day knitting, coloring, or marathoning movies to get my energy back.
In addition to these rules, I often give myself a networking goal like "Talk to one new person". Throughout the day I scribble down who I talked with so I can remember to follow up and thank them again later. This makes me feel productive because I know accomplished my goal and chatted with several people.
Networking at an event is vital. It is okay for it to feel like work, because it is work. The only way to get better at it, is to keep doing it.