Attending a Conference Alone? Here’s How to Make It Count
Sweaty palms, dry mouth, fluttering heart: the beat before entering a room full of strangers is uniquely nerve-wracking. It gets easier over time but for most people, it’s never exactly fun.
Going to a conference alone can feel like a nightmarishly extended version of this moment. It’s worth pushing past the initial discomfort, though. For one, you are free to schedule your days exactly as you’d like, attending sessions that interest you and skipping those that don’t. More importantly, flying solo makes it easier to connect with other conference goers. Without the comforting-but-protective bubble of a friend or group of co-workers, you are inherently more approachable.
Below, a handful of professionals share tips and strategies for surviving — no, thriving — at a conference at which you don’t know anyone.
Put your phone down
Among a smartphone’s most powerful use cases: its ability to deflect awkward social situations. Don’t know anyone at the lunch table? You could just immerse yourself in your screen. Like many things that feel instantly gratifying in the moment, however, using a smartphone as a defense mechanism against serendipitous conversation isn’t a productive long-term strategy.
At conferences, the smartphone’s siren call is especially strong in unstructured periods, such as at cocktail parties and other networking events. So be vigilant. “Force yourself to walk into a room with your phone in your purse or pocket,” says Kate Taylor, a frequent solo conference-goer and senior correspondent for Business Insider. Like entering a bracing pool, she finds its best to dive right in: “Say hi to a new person within 15 seconds of walking into a social event. If you wait, you’re less likely to say hi or socialize ever.”
Meals can also be uncomfortable. Morra Aarons-Mele, an internet marketer and the author of Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home) deploys one of two strategies: sit at an empty-ish table and wait for it to fill up or join an already-occupied table. The first is less immediately intimidating, but requires a commitment to “making yourself open and friendly and not staring at your phone while people are milling around.”
The second front-loads the initial awkwardness, but gets it out of the way. “If I am feeling really brave, I challenge myself to go up and say, ‘Is this seat taken?’” she says. The query opens the door for further conversation. (Her preferred follow-up is “What brings you here?” a less clinical opener than “What do you do?”)
Set your own schedule
One of the biggest advantages of attending a conference alone is the ability to decide exactly exactly how you want to spend your time. Don’t waste it!
“I am constantly checking my own temperature,” says Ashley C. Ford, a Brooklyn-based artist, consultant, and writer. “‘Ok, I’ve done four sessions - do I have the energy to do a fifth?’”
Tending to one’s own needs - “instead of being influenced by friends and coworkers who, in a lot of cases, just don’t want to be alone,” says Ford - is a gift. It’s fine to make a game plan, but take advantage of your ability to make modifications based on fluctuations in your mood and energy level.
Conferences can be tiring for even the heartiest of extroverts. For introverts and the socially anxious, they can feel like events designed to siphon away energy until there’s nothing left. Your approach, therefore, should factor in where you fall on this spectrum.
Aarons-Mele, a self-described socially anxious introvert, has come to accept her limits. “I can’t do breakfast, lunch, and dinner with other people - that will kill me,” she says. Typically, she eats breakfast alone and forces herself to attend a group lunch. Whenever possible, she takes a mid to late afternoon break. “I need to go back to my hotel and chill.” If there’s a cocktail hour, “I try to rev myself back up and make an appearance.”
She usually doesn’t make plans beyond that, however. After a socially-packed day, “I like to have nights to myself.” She sometimes feels like she missed out the next morning, but has made a tentative peace with the fact that dinners and late-night drinking sessions are not her preferred method of relationship-building. (She does better in one-on-one interactions, and is quick to connect with people via email.) “It’s about being compassionate with yourself,” she says. “I try not to beat myself up about it.”
For extroverts and introverts alike, failing to take time for oneself is a recipe for burnout. “Make sure you schedule some time to do something fun outside the conference,” Taylor says. “If you have time, get out of the direct area where the conference is and go for a hike, bike ride, meet up with friends or family who might be within the general area.”
Remember the actual stakes
In the moment, the consequence of making an awkward remark or aside feels momentous. In reality, it’s small talk at a conference. To maintain perspective, Ford remembers advice from her friend and former editor, Saeed Jones. “He thinks of himself as a little prince who has escaped from a castle,” she says. Freed from his normal routine, he is curious and interested in meeting new people; he wants to discover as much about them as possible. At the same time, he is a prince and therefore inherently interesting. He doesn’t have to prove himself or his worth. Instead, his goal is to learn and connect.
“It’s not your job to be the sparkliest, most interesting person in the room,” Aarons-Mele says. When you stop trying to captivate every stranger you interact with and simply focus on having a conversation, the stakes become less overwhelming.
More broadly, it’s important to remember conferences are just that: conferences. They can be important, but rarely, if ever, are they “make or break moments,” Aarons-Mele says. If you struggle at a networking reception or fail to attend a dinner, “the world will not end.”
Make real conversation
In the whirlwind and exhaustion of networking mixers and back-to-back sessions, actual conversation often withers. One of the best strategies is therefore one of the simplest: “Talk to people, ask them meaningful questions, be genuinely interested in their responses, and you’ll soon find yourself not very alone,” says Nicholas Epley, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
Not only do people respond to genuine interest, the approach will get you out of your own head. “When you are present and aren’t worried about something you said before or what you might say next, you can stay calm,” Ford says. “And when you are calm there is a better chance of having a more positive, natural interaction.”
Pre-conference planning can be a good way to calm the nerves. “Check out the hashtag for a conference before you go as well as during the event, as people will tweet about wanting to connect with folks or offer to serve as ‘conference buddies,’” says Erin McKean, the founder of the online dictionary Wordnik.com. Many conferences also have related Slack communities where attendees can connect in advance. “Those are usually a good place to ask if anyone else is going and wants to meet up,” McKean says.
Having a strategy for individual events can also help alleviate stress. For example, go into a cocktail party with the goal of meeting three new people, Taylor says. Once you’ve done that, “you can give yourself permission to leave.”
Approach the speakers
Attending a conference alone means you never have to rush if you don’t want to. If there’s a speaker you particularly want to meet, instead of zooming to the next session, go up and introduce yourself! “Often people are reluctant to talk to the speakers, possibly because they’re with friends who are moving on to something else, but being alone gives you time,” Epley says. “Having spoken at conferences for years, I’m always happy to talk with people in the audience who want to discuss a presentation further.”
Ford, a frequent speaker at conferences, enjoys hearing from audience members although notes the importance of reading the room. If you’re the only one to approach after a session, it’s not unreasonable to engage in a full conversation. If the room is crowded and the speaker is mobbed “know what you want to say, and make it brief,” she says. But by all means, introduce yourself: “I’ve never been like, ‘I wish that person didn’t come up to me.’”
More about Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a Brooklyn-based freelance journalist. Her work has appeared in Fortune, The Guardian, and GQ, among other publications.