Two years ago I was very excited about going to Test:Fest conference. But at the time I’ve entered the conference, I looked around and recognized no one. A crowd of unknown testers talking to each other. It was scary. Almost with tears in my eyes, I grabbed a coffee and desperately searched for a place to hide. I was able to hide in the workshop room for the whole conference. I didn’t talk to anyone and at the end of the day, I didn’t even feel like going for the after-party. This was an example of a bad conference experience even though I’ve learned a lot.
You might think, that the experience should be much better when You are a speaker. Networking should be easier. The only thing I found easier was that it was easier to hide. Most conferences provide speakers with a silent room for their own use. So I used it a lot for the first conferences to which I was invited as a speaker.
Making it better
Now I strongly believe now that networking is a huge part of the conference experience. It is not easy, but it might change the whole experience for You. It did change for me, but it was a long way. So when I saw David message about networking I was thrilled. David proposed three simple pieces of advice:
I feel really strong about first suggestion. At some point I wanted to tell all my friends at conferences “Sorry, I will stick to You like some kind of glue and when you will have enough of me – just say it and I will glue to someone else”. From my own experience conference is getting much nicer with a familiar face. You have someone to sit with, discuss with, plan the whole day. It is this little island of friendliness in the ocean of unknown. So let us make a little deal – if You will see me at the conference feel free to approach me and stick with me. We might both feel better and have better conference experience!
But how to get to know other attendees? You might try to get to know them before the conference. Some conferences have active Twitter handle or Facebook event. If you are going as a speaker You might get a better response, of course. But as an attendee, You may as well ask for others going from your area. During coffee or lunch breaks you may join tables with strangers. Good advice is to introduce yourself shortly and ask politely for them to introduce. This may give You a potential topic for discussion. The problem I found was that people tend to stop at the first step from bits of advice – they stick to the group of people they know and they threat newcomers like an intruder. What You can do? Approach another group 🙂
One level up is getting to know speakers. Again using Twitter might be the way to go. Ping them, ask for coffee/lunch or a direction where you can find them. They tend to respond (if they are active in this media) and almost never say no. I would never say no for such a thing. One problem still stands – how to talk with those people? Well, I would go with introducing yourself. Give them an idea who are they speaking with. Then ask questions, give them the opportunity to speak more. Maybe ask for more examples from their presentation or experiences within some field. I must admit this is something I will also work on – I tend to freeze when in front of the person I consider “better” than me. Don’t be like me 😉
One last thing is addressed to other speakers. I think it is a good idea for speakers to make themselves more approachable. Add twitter handle to the first slide. I’ve even heard the suggestion to have it at the bottom of every slide. Moreover, I really enjoyed the idea by @dtanzer to move the “About me” slide to the end. When getting to this slide – ask for feedback, questions and ideas. Show yourself as a person open for discussion. And when approached by attendee try to provide the time and place for discussion. It might not be time and place to discuss right after the presentation when another presentation is about to start – so ask people to join You for coffee or dinner.