At the Fluent conference earlier this month, I asked the audience to talk to the rest of the crowd. It’s very easy to get caught up in which speaker to go see on which topic, but even the best presentations can only go so far. If you attend a conference thinking of talks not only as opportunities to learn but as conversation starters, you’re likely to come home with a lot more.
Most of the time, conferences focus on what they have to offer directly: speakers, events, sponsors. The reality, though, is that the audience that showed up for those things brings its own greatness.
It’s hard for many of us—for me in particular—to go to a place full of people we’ve never met before, move through a large crowd, and deal with the information overload of sessions. For some people—jovial extroverts—it’s not so hard, but many techies are not that sociable. Conferences have a key ingredient, though, that makes it easier to start conversation: everyone is there for a similar, or at least related, purpose.
Sitting at a table full of people, even people with the same set of challenges, can be tricky, at least until the conversation opens up. Every time I sit down at a conference lunch table, it’s different—but almost every time, people found enough in common with each other to sustain the conversation beyond “so what did you think of those keynotes?”
It’s not just the shared experience of being at a conference, but the shared experience that brought you to the conference. Odds are excellent that you have a lot more in common with your fellow conference-goers than you think you might.
Typical conference lunch tables are kind of a funny size—usually seating 8-10 people around a circle. Everyone can hear each other, but it’s also possible to have conversations just with your immediate neighbors. Some tables break into full-group conversation, and others don’t. Some tables start with a group of people who know each other: sometimes those groups look inward, and other times they look outward.
A lot of lunches offer topic tables—”birds of a feather” (BOF), sometimes from a set list or created by attendees. If you want to make sure your lunch folks have a little more in common with you than the conference, these are a great place to go. Suggesting a topic can help you focus discussion on something important to you. Many shows also have these in the evening.
Speakers and Office Hours
At Fluent, we had “Office Hours” for speakers and O’Reilly authors. Held at a smaller table, these let people connect more directly with well-known people. At the same time, though, it’s an opportunity for people to connect with each other. If you’re both asking questions of the same person, odds are good you have something in common. Some of the best conversations I’ve had at conferences came when a speaker’s talk was over, and questions moved to the hallway. Even when the speaker had to move on, the conversation often continued.
Speakers add life to their subjects, but that doesn’t mean you should only talk with the speaker about it. Once you’ve been through a talk with someone, or especially a more focused conversation, you have something in common, a starting point for conversation.
If you came to the conference looking not just for information, but suppliers, the exhibit hall may be the most important part of the show for you. Eager buyers meet eager sellers, and both learn from the conversation.
If you came only for the talks, the exhibit hall may seem less appealing: a room full of booths, all with people who want to sell you something. The conversations mix commerce with technology, often accompanied by freebies that have little to do with either but turn into ‘swag’ as they accumulate.
If you’re not looking to buy, exhibit halls can seem like a strange way to learn, but they also hold opportunities. Booths are open conversations, another way to find people—sometimes the vendors, sometimes other attendees—with similar interests. Limits on booth space tend to make vendors want visitors to move through, so don’t linger forever, but look for opportunities, too.
If you want to connect with a favorite author, book signings can be fun too. They’re a lot easier to hold at conferences than at bookstores!
Hallways and Parties
The least structured parts of a conference can be the most fruitful. Hallways, at least if the venue is arranged sanely, are passageways to good conversation. There are some shows where everyone is in sessions, riveted to talks, but there’s pretty much always someone taking a break somewhere. Conversations that start among people seated next to each other during a talk move to a hallway to avoid being rude during a session. Some of those conversations can last as long as the session.
Formal breaks and receptions, often with coffee, food, and other treats, can be another good time to talk, and are probably the best time to schedule a meeting with people you’ve met at the conference. For most people, this will be open time.
Some conferences, most notably SXSW, are surrounded by parties. I have a hard time hearing other people talk at loud parties, but they seem key to a lot of other people’s conference conversations. JSConf did something different, putting a break day in the middle of their schedule. It was full of events for attendees, but the time was unstructured.
If You’re Speaking
When I first started speaking at conferences, the speakers’ room (and sometimes the speakers’ party) was a strong temptation. By all means, talk with your fellow speakers—speakers typically have more in common with each other than attendees, and getting started is easier.
Over time, though, as much as I liked my fellow speakers, I realized that it was more important for me to talk with the attendees. I’m not primarily a technologist—I’m primarily an explainer. While talking with fellow speakers helped me find new things to think about and consider, talking with attendees helped me do a better job of the explaining at the heart of my work.
Depending on the nature of the conference, being a speaker may make you very visible. Definitely be prepared to discuss things related to your session beyond the talk itself.
(And yes, some speakers only come for their talk. Sometimes it’s unavoidable, but avoid that if you can.)
The Online Component
Without social media, this story is so 1990s…
Even if you don’t use Twitter, it’s a great medium for following a conference, whether or not you’re attending. Searching for a conference (or session) hashtag (like #fluentconf) will bring up a lot of usually relevant tweets.
Those tweets can lead you to more of the story than fits into the conference, and again, they can lead you to other people. For a lot of us, replying to a tweet, even a tweet of someone we don’t know, is easier than walking up to someone. If conversation starts, great—if not, it was just a tweet.
Other conferences may offer other options, but there’s pretty much always a Twitter stream happening around a technology conference, and getting into it is easy.
Retreat When Necessary
I used to avoid staying in hotels near conferences to force myself to stay at the show. Retreating to my room didn’t feel like a good use of travel time. Eventually, though, I realized that pushing too hard to be social, or at least to be ‘present,’ wasn’t a good use of time overall. If you need to take a break, take a break.
Similarly, it’s okay that not everyone at a show will be eager to talk. If people aren’t interested, don’t push. They may be trying to pause at a time when their hotel or home is far away from the show. If they’re not eager to talk, don’t press. If you’re not eager to talk, don’t let others press you.
Done right, talking with the audience at a conference can teach you far more than you’ll get from the program, however great the show. Listening to others’ stories will help you figure out your own.