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Thursday, June 20, 2024

How to Make the Most of In-Person Conferences

“I’ve lost my social skills!” I texted to a friend while en route to my first in-person conference in four years. The workshop itself wasn’t new—I’d been to the same one every other year for the past decade. But between the last live one in 2018, the virtual one in 2020, and this one in 2022, I had learned to appreciate the convenience of online learning. No flights. No dress code. No interacting with others—the perfect environment for an introvert like me. 

But 10 months after registering, I left my sweatpants and slippers at home and headed to the airport, eager to connect with old and new friends. 

Virtual conferences aren’t going away—not everyone is comfortable traveling and spending time in meeting rooms surrounded by strangers. But in-person events are back, and when you’re ready to mingle with those who share a common interest, these tips can help you make the most of the experience.

Understand the Safety Protocols

After a series of lockdowns, fluctuating restrictions, variants, and other communicable illnesses, committing to a convention can be daunting. Before signing up, search the organization’s website to see what to expect when you arrive. Are you required to show proof of vaccination? Will masks be mandatory during sessions? Will you have access to medical care on-site?

“For the last four years, even prior to the pandemic, we had in-house physicians on the property,” says Tanya Philyaw, a senior meeting planner with Meeting Professionals International (MPI). “If anyone felt bad, we sent them to the doctor who staffed the event.” 

She points those concerned about her group’s safety to the protocol on their website. The “Know Before You Go” document has a Duty of Care section that includes: “While masks are not required to attend, please respect those who wish to continue to wear masks while among crowds.” It’s common sense but a good reminder: If you’re sick, stay home. 

Practice Your Social Skills in Advance

You’ve committed to the conference, and now it’s time to put yourself out there. Social skills, like any other, take continuous effort. “It’s common for people to feel out of practice and uncomfortable,” says Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist and friendship expert. “We tend to personalize the discomfort instead of seeing it as a normal human reaction to vulnerability and uncertainty.”

She says we tell ourselves that we should know how to navigate our friendships as adults. And it’s easy to fall into the trap of believing, “I should have figured this out by now”—a common thread in her work and research on friendship. “For some of us, it’s been a long time since we’ve had to make new friends.”

Start by making eye contact while checking out at the grocery or during walks around your neighborhood. Initiate light conversations with a barista or meet a friend for lunch or after work. The goal is to feel more comfortable interacting with others and making friends by the time you arrive at the convention.

Contact Others Before You Leave Home

The organizers for the workshop I signed up for provided a list of attendees through Dropbox. Not all organizations make a list available—it depends on compliance issues and the size of the event. But if you can locate the names by checking the group’s website, reach out to others through social media. Philyaw recommends using LinkedIn. “Follow someone or send a message: ‘Hey, I’m going to the conference too. What do you want to get out of the event?’” she says.

“If, as an introvert, we go without planning and preparation and looking at who’s going to be there, we’re setting ourselves up for failure,” says Matthew Pollard, author of the Introvert’s Edge series. Liking a few of the articles and posts of the people you’d like to meet can be helpful, he suggests. 

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Online groups are another way to connect in advance. Before my first workshop, I joined the organization’s private Facebook group. When a woman asked whether anyone was flying through Minnesota—I had a layover there—I reached out to her through Messenger. We met at the airport, then hopped on a clown-car-sized commuter plane to Ohio. She introduced me to at least a dozen people when we arrived at the hotel. I still stay in touch with half of them. 

Determine Your Goals 

You’ve paid your fees, confirmed your travel plans, and maybe even connected with people you’re eager to see in person. Now decide what you want to accomplish at the event. Will you network? Catch up with old friends? Sharpen your skills? I wanted to do all three. Along with listening to seasoned writers and celebrity speakers, I was searching for inspiration—a way to jumpstart the writing battery I was depleting by spending too much time alone in my home office. 

Pace Yourself

By the end of the first full day, I was surprised I wasn’t exhausted from information overload. Instead, I felt exhilarated. Still, I paced myself. 

“Sometimes we’re so excited to be reentering social situations and gatherings that we can deplete ourselves quickly,” says Kermayer. “People feel as if they’re getting more tired, more quickly—sometimes unexpectedly. Or they feel they’re doing too much too soon.”

Between sessions and meals, check in with yourself. Decide whether you need time to clear your thoughts before entering a new conversation. Allow yourself moments of rest. Kirmayer suggests these brief breaks aren’t necessarily an escape, but a means to build closer connections.

Share Special Requests 

Do you have food allergies? Are you gluten-free? Do you have physical limitations? According to Philyaw, 30 percent of their attendees have some dietary restrictions. While completing your online registration forms, answer each question and include any meal or other special requests. Don’t wait until you arrive at the venue to express your needs. 

If you’re not receiving emails leading up to the conference, check your address on the registration list or contact the organizers to confirm they have the correct one. You don’t want to miss something important. If available, download the organization’s app for updates, or follow the group on social media. 

Devise a Meal Plan

Val, one of only 10 men at a workshop the year I met him, struggled to find shared seating in the dining area as women at the event flung their sweaters and planted tote bags on the chairs surrounding them, shaking their heads no when he asked whether a seat was available. That night, he arrived early to dinner and snagged an empty table near the front. In a role reversal, the tote baggers asked whether they could sit with him. 

If you don’t want to save a table or rush to lunch earlier than everyone else, make a deal with a friend to reserve seats for one another. You’ll have opportunities to meet others during the meal, but you’re guaranteed to know at least one person at the table. 

Make Sense of Your Notes

Taking notes on a laptop is a viable option, especially if, like me, your handwriting resembles a toddler’s. But being a heavy-handed typist and wanting to avoid annoying those around me, I scribbled notes in a spiral notebook instead. I was relieved when some presenters shared their handouts in the workshop’s Dropbox folder, making note-taking unnecessary. 

I’ve since tried reusable notebooks like Rocketbook and Moleskine Smart. These digital notepads convert handwritten notes and drawings into files you can upload to the cloud or one of your devices. Aside from being lightweight, their eco-friendly design makes ditching traditional paper notebooks a responsible idea.

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Along with using Google Docs or the notes app on your phone, Notability and Microsoft OneNote let you take notes electronically using a stylus or your fingertip. You can also record sessions and convert them to digital files. Whether you’re capturing nuggets of information on paper or your laptop, reserve one page for action items: projects you want to tackle, the solution to a problem you’ve been pondering, or a reminder to practice typing more softly. 

When you’re ready to fly cross-country or drive to the convention center in your city, keep your mind open to new ideas. Search for the connections you made in advance. And if you feel overwhelmed or socially awkward at some point, remember you’re not alone. There’s probably someone roaming the venue looking for an open table—the perfect opportunity to wave them over to the empty seat beside you.

WIRED has teamed up with Jobbio to create WIRED Hired, a dedicated career marketplace for WIRED readers. Companies who want to advertise their jobs can visit WIRED Hired to post open roles, while anyone can search and apply for thousands of career opportunities. Jobbio is not involved with this story or any editorial content.

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