As a university professor and entrepreneur, I have to attend many events, from research conferences to entrepreneurship events. While I was a student, I always became excited when my professor sent me to a conference because it meant visiting a new city with great conference food, entirely for free.
As I aged into my 30s, the excitement of attending conferences subsided. That good feeling was replaced with obligation, anxiety, loneliness, and travel fatigue, making me thinking twice before signing up.
After two million frequent flyer miles, I gradually found some ways to deal with all those negative feelings associated with attending a conference:
1. Imagine that other people are shy too
As an introvert, it is scary walking up to strangers and striking a conversation. But as an entrepreneur, I also know that I have to come out of my comfort zone to talk with people at events. Inspired from the tip to “envision the audience naked” for overcoming a fear of public speaking, I imagine other people are shy too (sorry, not naked). This kind of thinking was able to put me at ease. It is a favour to shyer people if you take the first step and start the conversation. While doing something good to help other people, you are also helping yourself.
2. Homework first
Taking the courage to walk to people is only the first step; you also need to know what to talk about to keep the conversation going. As a techy geek, I really do not know much else to keep the conversation going besides speaking of my own field of technology. So what do you talk about after asking about the weather? This is where you have to do some homework first. Do you know any history on the conference venue or location? Do you have any interesting stories about the speakers? Do you know of any good restaurants nearby? Good conversation starters will require some research!
3. Leverage technology
With everything going mobile, many event organisers use a mobile event app to help attendees navigate the event and display the agenda, exhibitors, indoor maps, etc. Some event apps, such as Whova, allow attendees to view each other’s profile and network with each other before, during and after the event. Basically, it takes the “work” out of networking.
4. Dress comfortably and with confidence
Attending an event can be exhausting. Wear clothes that are both comfortable and able to give you confidence. Shoes are particularly important because you may have to stand and walk a lot during a conference, especially during receptions or networking sessions.
5. Don’t eat lunch or dinner alone
If the conference provides food, don’t be the first one standing in line for lunch or snack, no matter how hungry you are. Waiting in line gives you a chance to talk with people for at least 5-10 minutes. If you’re able to hit it off with your line buddy, you can continue sitting together throughout the entire meal to build a deeper connection.
6. Pamper yourself a little
Networking can be exhausting, especially if you have to travel to attend the conference. So pamper yourself with a little reward for your hard work. Temporarily pause your weight loss plan and eat some cake. After all, the conference is only a few days.
7. Follow-up after the conference
Another thing I used to do poorly is following up after the conference. Post-conference follow-up can help summarise the conversations you and your connections at the conference had and kick-off some action plan (if you guys decide to do something together). At a minimal level, it provides you another chance to get the other person to know more about you and be impressed by how organised you are.
Yuanyuan “YY” Zhou is CEO and Co-founder of Whova and is also a Qualcomm Chair Professor in Mobile Computing at University of California, San Diego. She obtained her PhD from Princeton University. She is an ACM Fellow and IEEE Fellow and ACM Mark Weiser Award Winner (2015). She has organised tens of academic conferences and alumni events and has also supported many graduate students to attend various conferences to shake some hands. This is how the Whova idea was born. With Whova, now her students can shake the right hands.You can follow her on Twitter @