It can be a tricky to introduce yourself to people at conferences when you read their blogs and watch their presentations and videos. You feel like you know them, but they don’t know you yet. What the heck do you say? So you take a deep breath, you head on over, and then… you say something really awkward.
I’ve totally been there too, with my foot right in my mouth. I am truly socially awkward, so much so that reviewing posts like this helps me get better at small talk before a big event.
Dodge the Backhanded Compliment
“Your presentations are great, even though ____.”
What it sounds like: “You’re not that good.”
What to say instead: “Your presentation on [folding paper towels] was great.”
It’s OK if you already knew how to fold a paper towel, they won’t assume you’ve never seen one before. Just stop before the “even though” or “but”. Less is more! And trust me, a simple concrete statement explaining that someone’s hard work helped you out will truly mean a lot to them. If you want to follow it up with a question to start a conversation, you can chase it with, “What inspired you to present on that topic?” (If you have real criticism, it’s valuable to share that too– after a few sentences. It’s kinda weird to lead with that.)
Sneak Past that Accidental Brush Off
“I wish I could come to your talk, but _____”
What it sounds like: “I’m not coming to your presentation.”
For newer speakers, it’s disheartening for them to hear this: they just hear “I’m not coming” and they immediately picture having to present to a room full of empty seats. That can have kind of a “sad Eeyore” ring because many speakers fear “what if nobody shows up?” (This is really hard to not say by accident, I’m still training myself out of it.)
What to say instead: “I like your title and abstract for [Cool Story, Bro].” It’s OK, you don’t have to attend. But you also don’t have to explain that you’re not going, unless they specifically ask. If you want to start a longer chat, it’s also great to ask them, “I’m thinking of attending Mladen’s session on [Security for Developers]. Do you know any other good sessions on that topic?” Speakers love to help you figure out what session to attend, even if the session isn’t their own.
Ooops, Did I Just Kinda Call You Ugly?
“You look so much _______ in person!”
What it sounds like: “You look short/dumpy/frumpy/bad in some context.” Even if you’re saying they look great now, this, uh, implies that’s not always the case.
What to say instead: “It’s great to meet you face to face.” Don’t worry, they think it’s great to meet you as well. If you’re in a place where you can have a chat, just ask, “How did you get started [publishing hilarious animated gifs on the internet]?”
Pack Your Bags For A Quick Guilt Trip
“Do you remember me? We met at ________.”
What it sounds like: “It makes me feel bad that you don’t remember me. And this might be a trick question and I’m totally trolling you, you won’t know till you answer.”
Some people are really good with names and faces. Oh, how I envy those people! For the rest of us, we do truly feel guilty if we met you before and you know who we are and we don’t remember your name. The real problem with this is that it’s hard for the conversation to not fall flat after this. It doesn’t go anywhere.
What to say instead: “I think we may have met at [a store selling panty hose in Texas] a few years back. It’s great to see you again!” Just adding a little “maybe” in there automatically puts the other person at ease if they don’t remember the situation for whatever reason.
Boy, My Tribe Sure Is Dumb!
“I love your blog posts. My developers are so dumb though! They always are doing _____.”
What it sounds like: “I don’t have anything nice to say about anyone. And maybe you’re a member of that club.”
I think some folks start like this because it’s a way of saying, “we must have this in common, right?” But it just doesn’t work so well. Leading with a negative statement gives the conversation a weird vibe, and you’re gambling that the person actually agrees with you. Sometimes they don’t!
What to say instead: “I can really relate to that blog post you wrote on [juggling chainsaws].” And if you don’t remember a specific post to talk about, but you can think of a topic, just mention that. Letting people know that you read their work is pretty darn exciting for them, all by itself.
I’M NOT REALLY INTERESTED IN YOU
“You talk to ___, a lot right? Where are they?”
What it sounds like: “You’re not that important to me, but your friends are.”
It’s totally normal to talk about what you’ve got in common, but don’t start with the people commonalities. Talk about what’s important to that other person – their work, presentation, family, or even just get coffee.
What to say instead: “What’s the #1 thing on your mind this week?” This lets the person share their excitement with something, and it’s contagious. You might learn something about a fun insider event too!
How to End It, Short And Sweet
Most initial conversations at conferences aren’t very long. You’ve got sessions to go to, there’s tons of people around saying hi to each other. But don’t be afraid to end it: you’ll probably run into one another again soon. Offer to trade business cards! That will help you remember each other– especially if your business card has your picture on it.
Small Talk is Just a Skill
You’ve got to start a conversation somewhere, and at a conference, you start it with small talk. We aren’t all naturally good at it, though.
Know this: even if you do end up with your foot in your mouth, it’s OK. Just smile and keep meeting new people. We’ve all been there, and it’s not nearly as big a deal as it feels like when your face turns red.