Attending Professional Conferences as a Newcomer

These notes may help people who are nervous about attending professional conferences for the first time.

Professional conferences can be super intimidating if it's your first time and you barely know anyone there. Imagine you walk out of a talk session and encounter a sea of people all mingling in the hallway. It seems like everyone (except you!) already knows each other and is having a great time. What should you do?

This is a panorama I recently took at CHI, a large professional conference attended by thousands of human-computer interaction researchers such as myself. Here are zoomed-in views:

If you find yourself in a similar setting as a conference newcomer lost in a sea of strangers, then the following notes can hopefully make your experience less nerve-racking and more fun:

First off, you don't need to talk to anyone. Repeat after me: you don't need to talk to anyone. Seriously, you don't! Don't feel any obligation whatsoever. Nobody will count it against you. Nobody is taking attendance or keeping score. Nobody will think that you're odd for not socializing. After all, everyone is too busy focusing on themselves to notice you! Thus, if you don't know the people around you and don't feel like talking to anyone in particular, then simply enjoy the conference as a silent observer. If this is the only advice that you internalize from this article, then you're already 90% of the way toward having a great time.

Second, it's OK to just talk to people you already know. It's fine! Once again, nobody will penalize you for not meeting anyone new at the conference. So if you already know some people and hang out only with them, that's perfectly fine. Plus, once you're already in a group, it may be easier for you all to serendipitously meet new people in a group setting.

If you really want to meet new people, then find the most junior/inexperienced people around you and approach them. The more senior/experienced/distinguished that someone appears to be, the more likely that they are already talking to their equally senior/experienced/distinguished colleagues, and the less likely they are to be receptive of newcomers approaching them. Plus, junior folks will be more flattered to have someone come talk to them and take a genuine interest in their work.

When you successfully strike up a conversation with someone, they may suddenly snub you and turn away to talk to someone whom they either already know or whom they want to schmooze with. This abrupt cold shoulder can feel jarring the first time it happens to you, but try not to get too upset. After all, the person you're talking to probably wants to hang out with their friends and colleagues rather than talk to some stranger who just cold-approached them. Like high school, conferences tend to be really cliquey. Attendees are often there to socialize with people they already know, and not everyone is skilled at politely easing out of conversations.

What are good times to try to strike up a conversation?

  • Right after someone has given a talk: This is the perfect time to come up to the speaker to ask them questions about their talk. If other people are also gathering by the speaker, then you can start a conversation with them as well since you've all just watched the same talk.

  • Demo or poster sessions: This is a great time to talk to the presenter or to other spectators who are gathering around the demo/poster.

  • When someone is standing alone and looking bored, maybe playing with their phone: I think this is a pretty good time to approach. However, this person may be waiting for a friend to arrive, so if you start talking and then all of a sudden get cut off by their friend arriving, don't get offended.

  • When someone is sitting alone on their laptop: This can also be a good time to approach. Even though they may be busy doing work, they are, after all, sitting in public in the middle of a conference! So they probably expect to be interrupted. Go for it, but if they look annoyed, then tactfully back off.

  • When two people are talking: This is the worst time to butt in, since they're clearly engaged in a one-on-one conversation.

  • When a larger group of people are talking: Better than the two-people case, but it can still be awkward to butt in. However, if these people look like they might be strangers congregating together to talk about something they've just seen at the conference, then feel free to join in.

  • Once again, I want to reiterate the first point in this article: You don't need to feel any obligation to talk to anyone! If you don't see a natural opportunity to converse, then don't force yourself to do it (unless you really want to).

Once you do strike up a conversation, what should you talk about? I don't know what you should talk about, but you probably shouldn't begin the conversation by making a pitch about your own work. Nobody wants to feel like they're on the receiving end of a hard sales pitch. OK, what about asking the person what they do for work? That's a bit better, but not by much. People are often tired of giving their usual introductory schpiels that they've told 100 times. Instead, try to find a common connection over something other than telling them what you do, or asking what they do. Even if you really want to pitch your work, I'd suggest building some rapport first and then easing into it.

My final note is about meals at conferences. There are two types of meals: those held within the conference venue itself, and those where people gather to go out to eat nearby. For conference venue meals, one problem that newcomers face is deciding which table to sit at. It can be super awkward to sit at a table where everyone else seems to already know each other. They may politely make some small-talk with you but then just focus on talking with one another. I don't know a good way to avoid this situation beside finding tables that don't appear to have only one giant clique. And for meals where people gather to go out to eat, if you don't already know someone, then it can be hard to find a meal group. In that case, it's perfectly fine not to eat with others. Nobody is forcing you to do so. You'll stress much less if you don't feel an obligation to socialize during mealtimes ... or during any other times.

In sum, your conference experience will be a lot more fun if you let go of any specific expectations of what you “should” or “ought to” be doing. There's no “right” way to attend a conference; do what works for you. You may find that if you just relax and open yourself up to serendipity, then interesting things will happen. Some of my best conference experiences have come out of such impromptu interactions rather than purposeful planning.

Further reading

Here are some good related articles focused on academic conferences in particular:

Again, all of these articles simply present suggestions – you don't need to feel obligated to follow any of them in order to have a “successful” conference experience. In my view, the main metric of success is whether you felt that attending was worth your time and energy.

Created: 2017-05-13
Last modified: 2017-05-13