Face-to-face interaction is by far the most valuable part of a conference, so:
- Don’t attend any talk that’s being recorded.
- You’ll get all the same info in 10% the time by skipping through the video later. Use the time to go meet people.
- Caveat: if attending the talk will let you meet the speaker (usually it won’t), and you’re dying to meet them, you should go.
- What if you have a question for the speaker? Email them after you watch the video. Then you get to correspond with them instead of being a faceless voice in their audience.
- Don’t eat any meal alone.
- Ideally, get food with a friend and a bunch of their friends whom you don’t know. But eating with strangers is good too.
- Book your lodging and travel so you can easily attend social events in the evenings, including the evening after the conference ends.
- Go to the poster/session/event where you can spend the most time in the smallest groups.
- Use poster sessions for free tutoring.
- Find a poster with no audience on a topic you’d like to understand better, and buttonhole its owner into teaching it to you at your pace. Though obviously don’t monopolize them if other people show up at their poster.
- If you’re presenting, leave more time for questions than you’re supposed to.
- Fire out all your interesting ideas as fast as possible (it never takes the whole allotted time to do this), then open it up for questions.
- The organizers won’t stop you.
- You and the audience will learn more.
- Example: the last talk I gave was supposed to be 17 minutes with 3 minutes for questions. Instead I gave a 5 minute talk with 15 minutes for questions. It was vastly more productive for everyone.
- Note: you still need to make a full-talk’s-worth of slides so you have visual aids to answer people’s questions.
Connections are easier to maintain remotely than to start remotely, so:
- Once you’re made a meaningful connection with someone, find someone else to talk to.
- To be clear: I’m not saying you should flit around trying to collect as many business cards as possible. I’m saying you probably shouldn’t talk to one person for more than an hour. If you’ve talked that long, you’ll be able to continue the conversation after the conference, so go meet some new folks.
All that Psych 101 stuff matters, so:
- Prioritize invite-only or apply-to-attend events.
- Wait to contact people until at least a week after the conference.
- By then they’ll have dealt with the deluge of emails from other people they met at the conference: Salience bias
The world could use fewer buttheads, so:
- Don’t try to impress people.
- The ones worth impressing will see through it, and they always find it annoying. Just self-assuredly express your ignorance - everyone likes this.
- Forcing yourself to only ask questions is a fun game to play at conferences.
- Focus on their problem.
- If you’re at a technical conference, make your goal in every conversation to discover and understand a big problem the other person is trying to solve right now. And, if you can, see if you can help them solve it.
- Outside of technical conferences, don’t overdo this. Make sure the person is in a problem-solving mood first.
- If you spot a wallflower, ask them to join your conversation.
- If you can’t think of a natural way to do this, just say: “Hey, sorry - I have a rule that when I see someone who looks like they’re searching for a conversation to join, I always ask if they want to join mine. Want to?” (HT Dan Ariely)