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What’s That Smell?

Aug 15, 2017

The opportunity to network with peers is one of the biggest values of association conferences, yet it can be incredibly difficult to start the conversation if you don’t know anyone. Even the most extroverted folks still struggle to break in. Fortunately, there are many ways to start and sustain meaningful conversations. Of course, there are some not-so-good ones too. (“What’s that smell?” might not be the best opening line!) Here’s what we suggest.

Starting the Conversation
Making the first move can be the hardest part of networking, but someone’s got to do it. Why not you? Don’t sweat it though, you don’t have to drain the ocean. Start by connecting with one person. Just one! Find someone who seems to be by themselves, and aim to make them your conference buddy—that one person you can connect with for the rest of the event. Then you two can band together and work the room. Although it might feel hard, starting the conversation is easy. Try something like:

  • “I’ll be honest, the only person I know here is the bartender, and I just met him two minutes ago. Mind if I introduce myself?”
  • “Hi there, I don’t think we’ve met before. My name is…”
  • “Pardon me. Do you know… (someone specific like a Board member)?”

Once you find a conference buddy, or even if you don’t find one right away, you should use the format of the event to your advantage. Is it a standing event? Try to join a large, loose group rather than a small one. You’ll have an easier time integrating into the conversation. Is it a seated dinner? Find a nearly full table and ask if you can join the group. If there’s a buffet, try going up multiple times for small amounts of food. That way you can talk to people each time! There are many possible conversation starters here:

  • “I tried the flatbread and it was great.”
  • “Everything looks so good! What do you recommend?”
  • “What do you think is inside those dumplings?”
  • “Hmmm, I’m not quite sure what that dish is. Do you know?”

Sustaining the Conversation
It worked. You’ve started a conversation about your favorite Asian foods. But now, how do you sustain that conversation and begin to derive meaning and value from it? Many great conversations start with a shared point of interest, and you’ve probably got a lot more in common with your new acquaintance than you think. One huge commonality is the conference you’re at! Ask:

  • “Did you attend the last workshop?”
  • “Which breakout session did you choose?
  • “What did you think of during…?”
  • “Which presentation did you like best?”
  • “Which presentation are you looking forward to tomorrow?”

By discussing the conference content specifically, you can begin to focus the conversation around your shared industry. Job roles, common challenges, new technology and trends: these are all rewarding conversation topics that will bolster your understanding of the industry as a whole. You could even learn some new tips and tricks that will help in our job, too.

Next, you might want to move beyond “safe” subjects like work, and dive deeper into your personal lives and values. That is how you can make friendships that last well beyond the conference. You shouldn’t stray away from this type of conversation. Yes, conferences are usually professional affairs, but the social aspect is undeniable. After all, associations are communities of people, and people strive for belonging and social interaction. Here’s how you can begin to deepen the conversation:

  • Where are you from originally?
  • What brought you to your current city?
  • What do you do outside of work?

If you go to a conference and attend only the educational sessions, you’ll learn a lot, but you won’t get all the value you could. The connections you make through networking might just be the most valuable part of the conference. Yes, it’s hard to meet people, especially if you’re a newcomer. But you can do it. We believe in you. Happy networking!


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