I am sure most of you have been in a situation similar to mine. Last week, I attended Social Slam in Knoxville, Tenn. I knew absolutely no one who was going to the conference, but I decided to attend because I believed it was relatively close to my new home in Charleston, S.C. (Seven hours later, in a tremendous rainstorm, I arrived. I stand corrected.)
The experience gave me the opportunity to adopt a fresh perspective on attending a conference as an unknown. I knew it would be hard to go and meet people, but I figured, “So what? I’m an adult.” I was up for it — and you should be, too. Pushing myself beyond my comfort zone improved my networking skills and expanded my circle in new ways.
Having survived this experience of being a stranger, here are some of my tips on what you should not do:
1. Come late to an event, thinking it will be easier to join in: It is much easier to arrive early. People are mingling then and finding their places. They are much more receptive to meeting new people, if only because they don’t want to appear strange standing by themselves. Come early and bring business cards. (Even if you don’t want anyone to remember you, you can use them for the many giveaways and door prize drawings!) You can really get to know more people — in more depth — when you arrive early.
2. Try to enter a conversation in which two people are directly facing each other: I say “try” because it usually doesn’t work and you look ridiculous, hanging on as they continue to talk, leaving you to eventually slink away. If they are talking at an open angle, rather than directly at each other, then they will be more accepting of being interrupted.
3. Join a big group: It’s hard to get started with a big group. Instead, find someone standing alone. I walked up to a man standing alone at the first event. Was he a loser? Was I? (Try not to make these assumptions.) No, he was a nice guy. I enjoyed meeting him and asked him the questions I’ve learned to ask: Where are you from? (This is a great question because it can be answered in many ways: with a city, state, or country; a profession or company; or even which hotel the person is staying at.) What did you come for? What do you expect to get out of the conference?
A great opening is to start by saying, “I don’t know a soul here.” People like it when you admit your vulnerability. They’ll usually answer that they don’t know anyone, either, or they’ll introduce you around. It’s a great way to find the people in the know.
4. Deliver a monologue: Sure, you’re nervous, but conversations need to be reciprocal. Think of them like late-night talk show interviews, not as stand-up presentations. I’ve been taught to ask questions, but I realized that two of the people I conversed with never asked me anything back. Not a thing. They just told me about themselves, why they were there, and what they wanted to achieve. It was interesting, but not engaging.
5. Use your phone, tablet, or computer to look busy: I know you don’t want to look alone, but spending all of your time looking at your devices doesn’t lend itself to getting involved. People will wonder why you spent so much money on a conference you’re not even invested in.
6. Tweet, tweet, tweet: Nowadays, there’s a Twitter hashtag for every conference. But that doesn’t mean that you have to constantly tweet everything the speakers say. If you’re tweeting, are you listening?
7. Grab your breakfast or lunch and sit at an empty table: No, no, no. You have to sit down with people. Try to find an empty spot at a nearly full table, unless you see a big, already-acquainted group is sitting together. Look for a table where several different individuals — not groups — are sitting. Take risks: You are at a conference, and no one knows you. Here, you can face rejection.
8. Play “How important am I?” or, even worse, “How important are you?”: Are you a VIP a PIP, a PUP, or a legend in your own mind? (That’s a very important person, a previously important person, and a presently unimportant person.) If you go to an event and there are VIPs — or you yourself are labeled a VIP — that’s great.
But first, you’re a human being. The people you meet are human beings. That is what’s important. Be good to everyone you meet until you are proven wrong. When you’re approached at a conference, don’t keep looking around to see if there are other (“more important”) people you should be spending your time with. Love the ones you’re with!
What should you do? Take risks. This is the perfect time for you to face rejection. You don’t know anyone. Trying new things and failing is a lot easier when the stakes aren’t high. Even if you don’t do well, you will learn lessons on what not to do next time. You have gained experience; from experience comes ability and with ability, you will succeed.
Barbara Fowler, Managing Director at Chief Outsiders, a provider of part-time marketing executives to help mid-sized businesses. Fowler’s specialties lie in sales and marketing synchronization, global business strategies, and family business turnaround techniques. A frequent speaker and writer on topics such as leadership, cultural diversity, and developing an environment of success, she has effectively led culturally diverse organizations and written and implemented training programs for CMOs worldwide.