How to be more social at events and conferences

I was going to call this post, "How to network with human beings." But I don't like that word (and I'm guessing you don't either). Networking sounds sleazy and self-serving.

Too often, we think about networking in terms of what we can get. We're doing it for ourselves; to fill our emotional needs.

These events aren’t for “networking”: they’re to make friends. - Tim Smith

Instead, your goal should be to build relationships with interesting people.

It starts with attitude (a story about me pouting in a corner)

When I was in my early 20's, I attended a small conference (30-50 people). When I arrived, I felt shy. I watched all the outgoing people talk and joke. They all seemed to be having a good time. But nobody seemed to notice me. 

I went into classic social victim mode: I located the nearest bowl of chips, sat down, and pouted.

Sitting in the corner (eating my chips), I had a realization: 

"I'm being so selfish: I'm expecting all these people to cater to my emotional needs for belonging." 

My focus was on what I wanted from other people, instead of what I could give to them.

Maybe I'm more selfish than most, but I constantly have to remind myself that it's not about me, it's about others. This mental model transforms me from a victim to a social leader.

Here’s what I started doing: 

  • Instead of hoping someone would approach me, I approached people and introduced myself.
  • Instead of talking, I listened.
  • Instead of excluding, I included.
  • Instead of guarding my emotions and appearing stuck up, I tried to be open and friendly. 

If someone seemed to genuinely not want my company, I just moved on to the next person.

Sometimes you're a roamer; sometimes you're an anchor

I lean towards extroversion: I could go to an event and meet 200 different people, and by the end of the night, I would be more energized than when I arrived. So I'm more disposed towards roaming: jumping from group to group, conversation to conversation, person to person.

Roaming is fine; it's the social equivalent of speed dating. You meet a lot of people in a short period. But as you develop your social leadership skills, you'll recognize situations where it's best to stay put (to be an anchor). It's especially helpful at events where most of the folks don't know each other, and there isn't much conversation or activity in the room.

In these situations, I try to be an early initiator, anchor myself in one place, and gradually include more and more people in our conversation. Here's why this is positive:

  1. People feel cared for because you're not trying to move on (and you include them in a bigger group of people).
  2. You become the de facto leader of the group. People will look to you to keep the conversation going, to ask interesting questions, and engage the group.
  3. When others notice that there is a "bigger" group of 2-3 and that there is an inclusive leader, they'll be more likely to join.

How to ask good questions

You want to be able to ask interesting questions.

Asking questions will put others at ease: they don't have to worry about what to talk about because you're providing the direction.

Don't be afraid to ask general questions! Asking general questions is a good strategy because they lead to more in-depth questions. Here's an example from a real conversation I had at a conference:

"Where are you from?" "Las Vegas." "No way! I was just in Vegas. I heard you can ski there, is that true?" "Yes, actually I skied there quite a bit this year. We have a small hill just outside of town." "How long have you been skiing?" "Since high school. I grew up in Utah, so we had a lot of good local places to ski." "I've been wanting to snowboard at Park City, Utah. Have you been? What's it like?" "It's amazing! If you get a chance, you should definitely go."

If you're at an event for programmers, you could ask: "Do you have any side-projects that you're working on?"

Asking interesting questions (and being able to follow-up with other, relevant queries) is a skill that requires practice. It will feel awkward at first, but as you continue to practice, you will get better and better at it. Soon, it starts to feel like second nature.

A closing thought

People that meet me at events have heard me speak, or listen to my podcast sometimes get the impression that I'm socially confident all the time.

Listen: I'm just like you. 

I get nervous. I get shy. I feel awkward. I try things and fall on my face. I say embarrassing stuff and regret it later. Sometimes I go to an event, and nothing clicks.

If I'm doing anything "special," it's this: I continuously trying to improve the way I interact with others. I remind myself that "it's not about me" and force myself to focus on the other people I meet. I practice, practice, practice asking questions (I honestly have fake conversations with myself in the car).

I hope this is helpful,
Justin Jackson

This article was originally published on February 9th, 2013. It's been updated since then.

Published on July 8th, 2019
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