3 Tips to Make The Most Of Conferences (Without Feeling Awkward)

This article was originally published by Forbes.

Going to a conference can feel a bit like the first day of high school. You’re nervous about what to wear, you expect to absorb a ton of new information, and you really hope people like you.

Whether I’m there to give a keynote or cover the event as a writer, a big part of my job is attending conferences. Fortunately, I like them.

I recently attended the National Speaker Association (NSA) Brand Lab in Phoenix, AZ and noted some of my favorite strategies to make the most of conferences and make them feel less awkward.

1. Use simple strategies to get started and meet people.

I playfully call myself a ‘Level-11 Extrovert’, but despite this identity and the frequency with which I attend conferences, I usually feel a little nervous as I head down to registration. Those familiar high school questions (Will I understand the material? Will I make friends?) spin in my mind.

To get myself energized for Brand Lab I listened to silly, inspiring pop music as I got dressed and wrote the word ‘brave’ on my leg (which was fully hidden by my pants) as secret inspiration. It can still be a little intimidating, but I find it helpful to remember that many other people feel nervous too. With so much electronic communication these days, real live human interaction with new people may not be a part of your day-to-day, which can make it even more stressful.  

Basic, open-ended questions – icebreakers, if you will – can help get the ball rolling. Some of my favorites are “Which speaker are you most interested to hear?”, “What session are you going to next?” or, later in the conference, “What’s been your biggest ah-ha moment?”

I also highly recommend talking about non-conference related things. My go-to question is, “What’s something in your life you’re excited about?” – a question I credit to author Elizabeth Gilbert. Instead of centering the conversation on what they do for a living or conference content, you make a more meaningful, interesting, personal connection based on something that energizes them.

Level-11 Extrovert Tip: waiting in line is a great time to begin conversation, whether you’re waiting on registration, the buffet or the bathroom.

2. Keep your energy up through snacks and time spent outside.

Conference food is always hit or miss, and it’s one of the few times that, as an adult, I have very little control over where and when I eat. As such, I travel with nuts, granola bars, and other snacks to keep me energized. Those airplane peanuts and pretzels have saved the day more than once.  

Conference locations themselves are also often an energy suck. Sitting in a random, windowless, borderline refrigerated hotel ballroom for days on end puts me in a conference coma. It’s like a casino, where I lose all concept of time and place and leave feeling depleted.

When you only have a 10-15 minute break to use the bathroom, stretch your legs, and network, going outside might not seem realistic. I like to find someone I want to talk to and say, “I’d love to keep chatting. Would you be interested in stepping out and getting some fresh air?” They usually say yes.

3. Accept conference FOMO and follow your own rhythm.

Good conferences often have amazing concurrent breakout sessions which allow attendees to dive deeper into their interest areas in a more intimate setting. This often leaves me with serious fear of missing out (FOMO).

By late afternoon on the second day of the Brand Lab my brain had reached a saturation point, incapable of absorbing new information or any sort of meaningful self-reflection.

As fellow speaker Christy Lamagne told me, “I could feel the words bouncing off of my head.”

One of my main motivations for attending Brand Lab was to learn from Sylvie Di Giusto. She’s kind of a rockstar in the NSA world – one of those people everyone says not to miss. Her session was designed to help us learn what first impressions we gave and how to improve them.

Unfortunately, after a day of feedback about my evolving brand identity and hours of self-reflection, just the thought of an hour and fifteen minutes on how to improve the first impression I give left me simultaneously exhausted and stressed.

Instead of going to Di Giusto’s session, I attended Chris West’s breakout on storytelling through video, which I’d also heard phenomenal things about. It provided the perfect balance of engaging anecdotes, strategy, and self-reflection for me in that moment.

After a welcome respite of solo-pool time, I met some of my new friends in the hotel bar for dinner. While FOMO nearly kept me up late socializing, I listened to my own rhythm and crashed around 10pm.

Blissfully, my early bedtime meant I’d already slept 7 hours when I woke up at 5am overflowing with ideas. Within ten minutes of opening my eyes, I had the outline for a new promotional video (or “sizzle reel” in industry speak) thanks to Chris and preliminary thoughts on a new article. Had I let FOMO win and attended the session on first impressions or stayed up late, I doubt I would have benefited from those ah-ha moments.

Conferences can be a lot.

If you’ve got one coming up, remember these strategies. Use the easy conversation starters to get comfortable, pack snacks and snag some fresh air to keep your energy up, and, finally, try to accept the FOMO and follow your own rhythms to get the most out of it.