How to get spoken to at conferences

Speaking to people is over-rated, let people speak to you

Speaking to people is the worst. There is every chance you will make yourself look like an unemployable, unlikeable asshole that nobody would want to work or be seen in public with.

At least that is what I think, every. single. time. I speak to someone who I haven’t met before.

Unfortunately the stupid meaty bag that stores our CPU and RAM needs other people, and your business or career almost certainly needs other people. Some day we will may only need to interact with our robot overlords, but until then you are going to need to speak to people and make connections to get ahead in life.

This post is not going to give you tips on how to talk to someone. Some people will argue that going up and making the first move is a skill worth learning if it isn’t something that already comes naturally to you. It isn’t a skill I want and is low down on my list of skills to learn.

Instead, what I want to cover are some ways to make it easier for other people to speak to you. You don’t have to make the first move and with minimal effort you will become engaged in conversation. To the casual observer you may even appear like a normal, functional member of society (don’t worry, we know the truth).

Here are my seven tips. Many of them will sound obvious as you read them, but they won’t be the first thing you think of in the heat of the moment, as it were.

Sit near the front

The most engaged folk are normally at the front, as are speakers who are waiting for their slot. I’ve found that people chat to me way more at the front of conferences than when I sit further back. Sitting near the front has other benefits, you have the best chance of reading hard to read slides or hearing hard to hear speakers. Very useful for grabbing some photographs too, if you wanted to write up the conference.

Put your phone away

During the gaps between talks or at lunch, try and keep your phone in your bag/pocket. It is very tempting to check your emails/twitter feed/play a game but it is a sure fire way to stop people from approaching you. Try making it through one of these gaps, or starting off by saying “for the next 5 minutes, no phone or laptop”.

Belle B Cooper shared this advice on Twitter;

@tosbourn Yeah, great topic! Just went to my first one and found keeping my phone in my pocket meant other people approached me more.
Belle 🔔 B. Cooper (@BelleBCooper) February 25, 2017

Stand in busy places

If there are places were a lot of people are congregating that should be where you plonk yourself. It is certainly my first instinct to find the most quiet corner and hide in my laptop. You need to fight this instinct because being where all the people are will improve your chances of someone talking to you.

Something that Zapier recommend is standing by the bar;

Stand by the bar. This gem comes from Zapier CEO Wade Foster. You’re guaranteed a steady stream of conversations when you’re next to the most popular spot in the room.

I should say though, that article also mentions drinking just enough, I think this is poor advice and wouldn’t advocate drinking for any other reason than enjoyment. I get their point about squashing nerves, but I know folk who think they are doing that and end up sloshed.

Speak to sponsors

But Toby, I hear you cry, you said I didn’t have to initiate conversation. It’s ok, sponsors aren’t real people. I’m joking, they are real people, and they are lovely, and if you want to sponsor my site you can email…

The people working at the sponsor booths will approach you if you so much as look at one of their free t-shirts for more than 0.76 seconds. Not only might you learn about a new product or service (and get a free t-shirt) you will also leave with new ammo for conversation should someone come up to you later.

Plan beforehand

Something I’ve done a few times now is used how social I am online to help how anti-social I am offline. I was reminded of this when I was asking folk for their tips;

@tosbourn tweeting is the way we almost connected at the My Dying Bride concert in Belfast, 2011. Hashtags(on Twitter/Instagram) def. work.
Pranav Shah (@pranav) February 26, 2017

Whilst we didn’t actually get meeting up, Pranav is right, arranging stuff beforehand is an excellent way to make sure you get speaking to people at events.

This could be as simple as tweeting out “Hey, will be at this conference, anyone going?” or it could mean digging through the attendee lists or hashtags on social media to find people you want to chat to.

This also mirrors one of the bits of advice The Institute of Humane Studies shared (unfortunately the link now 404s);

Get the best idea you can about who is attending and contact people ahead of time. Why put all the pressure on yourself to approach someone with whom you’ve had no contact?

If you are really struggling you could consider doing the majority of your conference networking online. This won’t have the same impact as actually talking to someone in real life, but would be better than nothing. In fact it is one of the things that Sensei recommend;

Involve yourself in conversations that are happening online via Twitter and Facebook, for example. People will get to see a little more of you. This is called self-disclosure. Reveal your opinions on things related to the business world.

In our case we would focus the conversations around the hashtag for the event.

Go with someone

If there is someone you feel comfortable being around who has an interest in the conference you’re attending consider inviting them along. Not only will it give you someone to retreat back to but you might get brought into conversations sparked up by them.

This is a sentiment shared by Ben Barden on Twitter;

@tosbourn I have a tip: try to go with a couple of people you already know, e.g. work colleagues.
Ben Barden (@benbarden) February 28, 2017

And also back to the Zapier advice;

Regardless of where your friend is on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, some company at the event will help. At a minimum, someone you already know should relax you.

Wear a Pokemon t-shirt

This is a bonus tip added since I got a shout out after sitting at the front of a conference wearing a Pokemon shirt;

Shout out to the guy in the front row of the #brightonseo auditorium who is wearing a similar design shirt to my underpants #pokemon
Rhys Wynne 🇪🇺 (@rhyswynne) September 15, 2017

But I want to talk to people

If you do decide that you want to actively seek out folk to network with at conferences, more power to you. I would perhaps advise reading Danny Iny’s article for Inc that talks about the 75/25 rule. Annoyingly Inc is paywalled so you may need to go into a private browser session to read the article, the thrust of it is that you actively spend 75% of your time at conferences not networking, but perhaps thinking about some select people you would like to speak to and then you network for about 25% of the time. Danny goes on to say that even meeting 3-5 should be plenty.

Personally I’d rather make 1 or 2 good connections at a conference, everyone is different. I think Michelle Regal makes this point well in her article about Salesforce Conferences for Introverts;

People are not the enemy when it comes to introverts. In fact, we love people so much that we want to have deep, meaningful relationships. These relationships make social situations go from draining to energizing, but you can’t make a bunch of real connections in just a few short days.

So make it a goal to reach out to someone and make a real connection.

A note for conference organisers

If you are reading this and put on conferences or events, there are some things you can do to help make sure introverted folk get the most out of networking events. That is a topic for another day but I can recommend checking out what Jennifer Kahnweiler has to say on the topic, she has a great post about how to keep introverts in their rooms at conferences. Do the opposite of these rules!

Recent posts View all


The best way to test model scopes in Rails

Learn about Rails scopes and how to best test them with both Rspec and Minitest


Finding out what called a Ruby method

A quick way to understand what is calling your code using the caller method