Conference Survival Skills

I recently attended a professional conference in Louisville, Kentucky. I have not felt so uncomfortable around a group of people I theoretically have something in common with in my entire life! Well at least since I made the mistake of signing up for a free group trip to Israel back in 2009.

The big difference was, this time I realized that I wasn’t crazy to feel like everyone was judging me—they totally were. Conferences are like what Charles Darwin would invent for a high school project on survival of the ambitious, and his group members would be Becky Sharp, Attila the Hun, and a honey badger.

I decided to treat my time in the conference cooker as immersion therapy. All my worst fears about being evaluated and rejected by others were going to come true, and it was my job to get down with that. It was not the best experience of my life, but I learned some things for next time.


1. People will walk away from you in the middle of conversations. Try not to take this personally.

That is what networking is about. One woman I was chatting with about filing systems announced that she was going to go take a nap, and ten minutes later I saw her kicking back with a beer across the room. Of course that happened, because a) look what we were talking about and b) that’s what you’re supposed to do at a conference.

Sometimes I’d try heading off a prospective ditching by being the first one to bounce, and I also tried wildly inviting more people I didn’t know to join the conversation in order to keep the pressure off me in one-on-one scenarios. All these options went… weirdly, but that was fine!

When someone wanders away mid-sentence, it also helps to imagine that they are leaving to rescue an injured fawn, or deliver emergency pancakes to a team of orphaned kindergarten football players. It’s possible.


2. Dress appropriately. Everyone walks around staring at each other’s torsos like they’re trying to pick out the star-bellied Sneetches. Because: nametags.

If yours has a name with caché on it, you’re a star-belly, and people will happily chat with you while standing in line at the Hilton branch of Einstein’s Bagels. If not (raises hand), they will ask thoughtful questions like “So why are you here,” or else look wistfully past you as if they are looking for Mr. Darcy or someone else dreamy and important.

Sometimes I got tired of this and flipped my nametag around so that it was blank, which forced people to ask me what my name was and what company I worked for. It was sort of satisfying, but really it only delayed the inevitable for a few seconds.


3. You will be called on to explain yourself. Maybe have something ready to say.

This was the most awkward part of the conference for me. The successful networkers had well-developed elevator pitches that summed up their professional lives in a sentence or two. One very cool girl said that she’d spent her twenties “collecting stories” as an art student, seamstress, and carpenter before finding her way to her current career. Another guy had worked at the Federal Reserve. He said the day he quit to pursue his professional dreams, he ran out of the building, stripped off his coat and tie, and threw them in the garbage. I did not have a story beyond, “Me friendly, you too?” Will fix.


4. Make friends based not on who can clearly help you with your career, but instead based on whoever seems nice and fun.

It wasn’t a very Attila kind of move, but it made me much happier and more comfortable. And since people who I like and admire usually do things that I think are cool too, I don’t see how this approach could possibly hurt, professional development-wise.


5. Go off in a corner somewhere from time to time.

At conferences there’s a lot of pressure to be on 24/7 like a dutiful Roomba, but that’s not sustainable. When I felt overwhelmed’ I’d duck off to text people back home or step outside to grab a coffee. This helped me remember that I was a human being with a life that extended beyond windowless blocks of hotel conference rooms. Also, it turns out that sometimes when you’re just sitting by your self, people will actually approach you. (Nice change.)


6. Even if everyone is judging you (and they are!), lots of other people are feeling judged too.

At one workshop, I overheard a guy with gelled hair whispering frantically to the girl beside him. “I feel like everyone here hates me,” he said. “I’ve never felt so uncomfortable.”

“They don’t hate you,” the girl said with a reassuring head-tilt. The guy did not look convinced. But she was telling the truth. Conferences are not places of hate. They are places of vast, bottomless neurosis. Which means that when I attend my next conference later this month, I’ll saunter up to the registration table knowing that I fit right in.


Sarah Todd blogs about feminism and popular culture over at Girls Like Giants. Photo: NHSE


17 Comments / Post A Comment

WhyHelloThere (#1,398)

Hah! I am going to a professional conference in two weeks, and I have resolved not to deal with this issue the way I usually do, which is by sticking with the three people I know and not trying to network at all. I need to meet new people! I need to network! But it is much easier to sit in a corner with the three people I know. And that sort of defeats the purpose of going to a professional conference.

Anyway, I’m presenting at my upcoming conference, which means that I’m going to spend the next two weeks angsting about what I should wear. That may be worse than angsting about the fact that I’m a nobody and everyone hates me, but only by a little bit.

olivia (#1,618)

@WhyHelloThere This is my strategy as well. Networking actually isn’t a huge part of my job, which is fantastic. I’m sure it could only help me, but no thanks!

@WhyHelloThere Presenting is going to make it so much easier, because people will likely come up and talk to you after your session! Also you have something in common with all the other presenters from the get go (conversation topics: nerves, av issues, whatever the session topic is, presentation skills, etc.)

Caitlin with a C (#3,578)

I need to print this on a business card and carry it in my pockets. When I go to conferences alone (which seems to be the only way I avoid @WhyHelloThere’s method of sticking with friends), I go all conference survivalist and get really hardcore on #4. Sometimes you meet really interesting people who are very helpful down the road that way!

RocketSurgeon (#747)

The only thing worse than networking is being networked upon.

City_Dater (#565)


Too true. As a Star-belly (I’m not important in my industry but where I work is), I am guilty of concealing my name tag just to get a moment’s peace.

This is my exact worse nightmare.

@Reginal T. Squirge Yup, yup.

I went to one once, when I was working for an accounting firm, and I wanted to shoot myself.

Tweet you guys. Everybody tweet using the conference hashtag and then you will make internet friends that you can continue to chat with online afterwards.

EM (#1,012)

Jeez! I have only ever been to academic conferences, where everyone (1) drinks copiously (2) skips 90% of the sessions and (3) complains about their students. They’re pretty fun.

@Michelle Yes, this has also been my experience with academic conferences! for those I think my rules are 1) find journalists and other people who can hold a conversation 2) never say no to going out after 3) someone taught me the 1,1,5 rule: every day, get 1 good meal, 1 shower, and 5 hours of sleep. These are negotiable though!

“at least since I made the mistake of signing up for a free group trip to Israel back in 2009.”

Ahhh I am doing both of these things for the first time this year and you have made me NERVOUS

@nic’kalmus@twitter Ahh I am sorry!! Just because I am a stresscase doesn’t mean that you will be though. And both were definitely good growing experiences for me–would do again.

sony_b (#225)

I average 12 week long tech conferences per year, and am an extreme introvert. It is HARD. My tips –

1. Invest in good, comfortable shoes.

2. If you’re traveling get a hotel room as close to the conference as possible.

3. If it’s reasonable skip every second or third session and go back to your room to recharge – both literally and figuratively. If you can’t go to your room, find a quiet corner. Most conferences have a media room and a speaker room with better internet, better snacks, and the top tier attendees and media folks to network with. Apply for blog passes or speaker spots wherever possible, just for that perq.

4. It is entirely possible to live for an entire week on nothing but the shitty snacks the venue and various sponsor parties put out. Don’t do it. Eat real breakfast every day.

5. Look for the extroverts who you haven’t connected with and find out where they will be socializing (twitter is good for this) – they will make the conversation easy. But don’t be a creepy quiet stalker.

6. Two drink maximum – it’s easy to fake being a little tipsy or even drunk if it helps you fit in with the crowd. It is not easy to fake being sober.

7. The more uptight the conference, the more crazy sex shenanigans are happening around the hotels. Bring birth control if you might even be remotely tempted.

sony_b (#225)

Also, on #4 – it is the best career move. Part of that whole giver strategy people were talking about a couple of weeks ago here. In all the obits about Roger Ebert that really popped out to me – he was genuinely nice and helped a lot of people get their start. There really are a lot of very successful, honestly nice people, and they will help you out over the long haul when they can.

Jack85 (#7,003)

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