Lost in a Crowd: 10 Tips for Making New Friends at a Conference

Published: August 6, 2010 | Last Updated: August 6, 2010 By | 1 Reply Continue Reading

If you feel the slightest bit shy or uncomfortable in large groups, the anticipation of attending a conference with hundreds of strangers can be absolutely daunting. Take it from me. You think about where you’ll sit, whether you’ll have anyone to talk to, and whether you’ll be eating lunch at a table for one.


I’m sad to report that it doesn’t get easier with age or experience, at least not for me. After attending scores of professional meetings, I’ll be a first-timer at BlogHer ’10 tomorrow. Earlier today, I had already begun mentally rehearsing what I might do to make the meeting more satisfying and productive and wisely asked some of my Facebook friends for their advice on how to make friends. Here are some of their suggestions and mine:


1. Plan ahead

Before you go, check out the list of attendees and/or speakers to see if any names seem familiar. You may spot the name of someone with whom you know you have something in common. Perhaps, you’ve read the person’s work or you have a mutual friend. You can make plans to meet up when you arrive or you can keep your eyes open for an opportunity to meet when you get there. Another idea: Before you go, Facebook and Tweet that you’re going. Maybe someone will respond and you’ll no longer feel alone.


2. Make yourself approachable

The skills for making friends at a conference aren’t too different than those for making friends anywhere else. Making eye contact and smiling suggests you’re interested in being friendly. Conversely, looking into your book or down into your chest signals, "Don’t bother me." Check your name tag and make sure it’s not hidden or folded under a crease on your blouse. One Facebook friend suggested writing something provocative on it like, "Ask me about my ten tips for… " For me, writing "Hi" in bold print would seem highly provocative.


3. Engage in conversation

Yes, it’s always a bit risky but you have to take chances if you really want to make a friend. So if you see something, say something: If you like someone’s shoes or laptop, compliment the person. Alternatively, your M.O. might be to ask someone a question or two about the conference (interesting sessions or speakers, for example), about the locale where the meeting is being held (names of restaurants, sightseeing attractions, etc.), or something bordering on personal (when did you get here, where are you from, what kind of work do you do, etc). If you get a response, it might open the door for more conversation. If at first you don’t succeed, try again with someone else.


4. Listen, really listen

Don’t just shoot questions without giving the other person a chance to talk. Conversation requires listening attentively (This means no texting or reading emails while listening!). See what the other person wants to talk about and try to gauge her interest in meeting someone new.


5. Location, location, location

If you find an empty seat between two people, ask whether that seat is taken rather than looking for a seat at the end of an empty row. You will be giving yourself a shot at connecting with two potentially interesting people on both sides of you. While not impossible, it is usually tougher to make headway when you sit down next to two people who are already coupled.


6. Come bearing essential gifts

In the conference brochure for BlogHer, they suggest bringing a power strip to share with others. What a great idea for engaging with neighbors! You bet I have one packed in my bag already! If you aren’t using an IPad or computer, an extra pen may even do the trick.


7. Watch the traffic

Learn the layout of the conference venue and say hello to people who look lost or confused. If there is a map of the conference area, keep it handy so someone else can borrow it. People always welcome an overture from someone who seems helpful. Two of my Facebook friends admit to using this technique.


8. Follow up on any reasonable leads

If you seem to be hitting it off well, see if the person wants to join you for lunch or a drink—or to share a cab back to wherever. One of my most social Facebook friends says that this is how she really cements the budding friendship.


9. Bring business cards

In the event that you make a potential friend or colleague at the meeting, exchange business cards with your email and blog address so you can contact each other afterwards. Sending an email that says, "It was nice meeting you," makes sure your friend-to-be has your email contact information. You can also add them as a Facebook friend or connect with the person on LinkedIn.


10. Guard against being intrusive

Don’t be too pushy, too inquisitive, too needy or too talkative. Friendships are reciprocal so you need to be sure the other person is as interested in making a friend as you are. That will often be the case!


And, of course, if you want to make friends with an author, ask where you can buy her book! If you have already read it, be sure to tell her that you loved it.


Thanks Facebook friends for all the great ideas~

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  1. Irene says:

    Hi Jill,

    It went better than expected! I tried to follow “the rules” that I listed for myself and they worked pretty well (although carrying the power cord may have been a bit excessive because I didn’t use it).

    As you suggest, it was a very warm and welcoming group and I even got to make a few friends!

    When a shy person attends a conference, they feel their shyness “viscerally” as I do. After a million years, you learn to function well in spite of fit.


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