The informal conversations you have in conference corridors in between sessions can help you learn a lot more and connect with more people than the planned sessions do. Here are some tips to help you make the most of the hallway track.
Prepare by looking up people’s names and faces. Make a list of people you want to meet at the conference, like the speakers you’re interested in listening to or other participants you want to chat with. Review their names so that you can recognize them when you read people’s nametags. If possible, look up people’s pictures, too, so that you can spot them in a crowd.
Make time by managing expectations. The gaps between sessions are NOT the time to check your e-mail or join conference calls. Prepare for the conference by setting your coworkers’ expectations. You’ll get the most out of the conference – and you’ll have the most to bring back – if no one expects you to constantly check e-mail or be available for meetings. Block the time off.
Make time by being ruthless with conference agendas. If you really don’t see any sessions you might be interested in, or if the session you’re in turns out to be a waste of time for you, leave and check the hallway track. If no one’s in the hallway, you can slip into anohter session you were interested in.
Be easy to find. Plan to make it easy for people to find you so that they can continue interesting conversations with you or introduce you to other people they think you should meet. One of my friends wears a green blazer to conferences, so that he’s easy to find in a crowd. I wear a hat. Make it easy for people to connect.
Plan to take notes and exchange information. Don’t waste the time you spend talking. Bring a notebook or a PDA that you can use to write quick notes. Bring business cards, too – they’re still the most reliable way to give someone your contact information as a physical reminder to follow up.
Set up meetings with people you really want to meet. Reconnecting with old colleagues? Really want to talk to a speaker? Don’t leave it up to chance. Find out where people are and arrange to meet them.
Give people excuses to talk to you. Make it easy for people to start a conversation with you about a topic of mutual interest. Write keywords on your nametag, or wear a second nametag with keywords on it. Going to a geek conference? Wear a T-shirt related to your project, and people will almost certainly ask you about it.
Start the conversation. Yes, it can be scary, but the good news is that conferences give you natural conversation starters. Ask people what session they attended and what they learned from it. Ask people which sessions they’re looking forward to and why. Ask people what they’ve liked the most about the conference so far, and what would make it even better. Ask people what actions they’re planning to take based on what they’ve learned. There’s no need to stick to small talk about the weather or what people do.
Expand the circle. If you want to open a conversation so that other people feel less awkward about joining it, don’t stand directly in front of the person you’re talking to; open things up so that you’re standing in an incomplete circle. See people hovering near the edge of your conversation? Invite them in and make them part of it. Connect the dots. Introduce people to each other, bring out shared interests, and make people feel comfortable.
Look for homework. Make following up easier for yourself by looking for opportunities to give yourself homework. Find out how you can help the other person. Can you share your conference notes? Can you introduce them to other people? Can you help them with what they’re working on? Do you want to learn more about something they’re doing? Write that down and swap contact information. Now you have a reason for following up.
Reinforce the connection. Unless you’re at a huge conference, you’ll probably see many of your new acquaintances a few times. Smile and wave to them. Chat with them and compare notes on the sessions people have attended. Introduce them to other people. Reinforce that connection so that following up is easier.
Take breaks if you need them. Conferences can be overwhelming, particularly for introverts. Don’t be ashamed about taking a quiet break somewhere to recharge so that you can make the most of the rest of the day. I like taking a walk outside. I’ve sometimes napped in conference hallways so that I can be in good shape to give a presentation.
Review your notes and do your homework. Congrats! You’ve gotten through your conference. Now do the homework you’ve promised to do and follow up with the people you promised to get in touch with.