Coming from a background in the performing arts, I wasn’t sure what to expect when I attended my first ever event as a member of the Parse.ly team back in 2015.
In the theater industry, professional knowledge tends to flow less freely; if you have information, you hold onto it for your benefit until the right time. Immediately what struck me about the tech and media industries was the desire to learn and collaborate. I spent my first conference engaging in conversations that seemed to all center around the theme: “How can we help each other do better?”
Since then, I’ve had the opportunity to represent Parse.ly at over sixty conferences and events. How inspiring to be a part of this community! My favorite part about adopting this mindset in a professional capacity is that the desire to learn translates into a desire to talk (which happens to be my specialty).
If you’ve ever felt reticent at a conference or unsure of how to break the ice, just know we’ve all been there. Through the years, I find myself returning to the same arsenal of tips to ensure I’m making the most of every event I have the chance to attend. Here are the five simple habits that I use to network my way through conferences:
1) Don’t be shy about contact and a simple “hello”
The next place you go, I dare you to try this simple trick: look people in the eyes and say hello. Try it no matter what you’re after, whether it’s recommendations at the local cheesemonger, directions to the nearest Starbucks, or getting to know someone in those moments before the next conference session starts. People naturally want to connect, and simply seeking eye contact and greeting a passerby will open up any conversation. Most likely, the rest will take care of itself!
2) Never say no to a free snack
Forget about your diet at the next conference you go to. Finding ways to connect with people is key, and what better way than over a cup of coffee or the mid-morning snack break? As people who want to connect, the simplest opportunity for conversation follows that sometimes-awkward opening: “Going on my fourth cup of coffee today. What brings you to this conference?” And you’re off!
3) Join in whenever you can
At the very first conference I attended back in 2015, there were a myriad of games and activities, from a live chalk mural to a professional bubble blower. Upon entering, I thought to myself, “How Silicon Valley of them!” As the conference went on, I chatted with other attendees while participating or observing these activities. That’s when I realized the pure genius of it all. Activities give you another excuse to say, “Hello, my name is Katie Jane! What brings you here?” Boom, connection.
I tried my hand at bubble-making, but I think I’ll stay at Parse.ly for now.
It might seem like this goes without saying, but it’s worth emphasizing the value of attending conference sessions. Not only are presentations and workshops prime learning opportunities, but they’re fodder for great discussions. When you pay attention to the sessions, you establish common ground with the other attendees and speakers. When you see them at the happy hour later, you’ll have more than one perfect way to strike up a conversation.
4) Ask questions
The art of good conversation is asking great questions. I’m not talking simple yes or no questions, but open-ended questions that elicit an opinion. More often than not, when someone stops by our booth at a conference, my team and I try to ask as many questions as the visitor does. Making someone feel comfortable is as easy as letting them a) talk about themselves and b) feel known and understood by who they are talking to. Genuine interest is contagious. The next time you are in a conversation with someone, try asking this question once or twice: “What is your opinion on that?” I guarantee things will turn out well.
5) Stand in the middle of the walkway
Really, just stand there. If you are standing two or three feet out from your booth, for example, you no longer have to wait for people to come to you. You create a new dynamic by changing the physical space, giving passersby the option to make eye-contact and say “hello!” If they still continue on? Maybe they don’t want to connect at that moment, and that is totally fine, too. The real key is putting yourself out there. Whether you’re attending the conference as a speaker, audience member, or vendor, it helps to literally stand out from the crowd.
With those tips in mind, good luck at your next conference!
Katie Jane hails from Stockton, California and moved to New York after studying Musical Theater in Oklahoma. She performed professionally for four years in Musical Theater with credits in several National Tours, appearances on “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” “Tonight with Jimmy Fallon,” and in concert with Darius Rucker, Blake Shelton, and Band Perry. In addition to this, she performed with the USO, entertaining America’s troops and families world-wide. Prior to joining the all-star sales team at Parse.ly, Katie Jane worked in fundraising for the San Francisco Symphony.