Tips To Overcome The Awkward Conference Table

“Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

We’ve all been there. You’re at a conference surrounded by hundreds of other professionals for a networking/keynote luncheon. Your partner bailed because their client is requesting an emergency meeting and you’re left to fend for yourself. You see plenty of open seats and are trying to select the best option within view.  “What am I supposed to talk about with people I don’t even know,” is quite often the number one thought running through the head of anyone who’s been put in this situation.  Well, it’s time to overcome the fear of going solo at a conference event!

I recently attended the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) and received an e-mail with a link for the free audiobook edition of CES President and CEO Gary Shapiro’s book “Ninja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World’s Most Successful Businesses.”  In Chapter 4 of the book (Chapter 6 of the audiobook), Shapiro discusses a few tips on how to handle events where you might find yourself sitting with a group of people you are just meeting for the first time. “My technique is to simply ask questions and follow up the answers with questions telescoping further into promising areas,” Shapiro writes. The questions can include insight into a person’s business or personal life, so long as you remain actively listening.

Here are a few more tips and guiding principals:

  • Don’t immediately exchange business cards. Make an effort to get to know the person before you ask for a card. If at a sit-down table event, it’s important to have plenty of cards on hand because often times once one person gives out a card, the entire table follows!
  • Don’t make the conversation about your current struggles! It’s easy to try and find a common enemy in the current economy or difficulty in not having landed a job or having to study for the bar (which you shouldn’t be at a conference if that’s the case and it’s anywhere less than 2 months before the exam!). However, you should avoid these topics at all costs when talking with a practicing attorney. Instead, discuss a recent case and how it relates to something you’ve been studying – preferably within the same practice area as the attorney. Even if the other person brings up difficulty in school or the bar exam, redirect the conversation to a more neutral or positive topic.
  • Stay focused on the group you’re with. Avoid glancing around at other groups or other people you’d like to seek out next. Instead, focus in and listen to each person and what they’re talking about. Often, individual conversations will break off at the table. Don’t hesitate to jump in and start talking or join the conversation with the person on either side of you – even if the person across the table is the only reason you sat down there. Also, if you’re at a standing-only event, don’t hover behind someone talking waiting for them to finish.
  • If you’re super nervous about sitting down at a table without knowing anyone, try and find a new person you can group together with to find a spot. It’s helpful to have someone else with you to break the ice and pick back up a conversation that reaches a dead end. A new friend can even be someone you meet out in the hallway as you walk into the dining area.

Being nervous is a natural part of attending conferences and networking events. I encourage you to get out there and make those connections!

*The link above to Gary Shapiro’s book is an Amazon affiliate link.
Original Image Credit: The Falcondale via Flickr; Modified by Franklin Graves.