Surviving the Conference Mixer: No Bull about It

By Maria LaMonaca Wisdom
Tips to network better at conference mixers

Your phone may be a convenient social crutch at networking events, but it also signals to others that you are not looking for conversation.

Attending your first academic conferences and still figuring out the networking thing? Can’t wait until it finally stops feeling awkward? For some of us, it never entirely goes away. This observation is not to depress or discourage; rather, part of managing social awkwardness is to own it, maybe love it (sometimes).

A little over a year ago, I attended a professional conference in Houston, featuring two very different networking scenarios:

  • A reception at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts, where we were serenaded by classical music and encouraged to browse through the galleries as we chatted with fellow conferees
  • A dinner (the next evening) at the conference hotel, featuring a Wild West theme, loud country music, and a mechanical bull

You can easily guess which scenario was more comfortable for this self-professed introvert. At the art museum, one could completely avoid the most dreaded circumstance of networking events—getting stuck with no one to talk to. All one had to do was develop a sudden fascination with the oil portrait across the room and rush over to examine it. The peaceful museum setting was a tonic for jangled nerves, and it was easy to speak and listen.

The Wild West mixer, by contrast, delivered a lot of sensory overload, including more people crowded into a smaller space. Attempts to talk over the noise rendered me (and others) hoarse by evening’s end.

Not everyone finds mixers challenging. There are, in fact, plenty of extroverted types in academia. But no matter where you fall on the Myers-Briggs spectrum, the hotel ballroom filled with Mostly Strange People We’d Like to Impress can be daunting to anyone. Too often, these events feel more like Wild West mixer than art museum, even without the mechanical bull.

Navigating conference mixers is a skill that can be learned, even mastered, with sufficient practice. You may not ever prefer these events to, say, a birthday party with your closest friends, but you can increase your comfort level, radiate confidence, and most importantly—reap the professional benefits that these events are designed to provide.

Social anxiety is the great equalizer. It’s easy to walk into a large room of strangers and obsess about the sort of impression you may be making. If you can shift your focus to the other people in the room, that will trigger an avalanche of positive outcomes. For example, you will notice that others in the room may look uncomfortable or awkward as well. And they certainly will not all be graduate students.  You may realize, in fact, that there is no automatic correlation between a long CV or fancy academic title and social finesse.

Adopt a “host” rather than a “guest” mentality. This is perhaps the most valuable piece of advice in Susan RoAne’s classic self-help book, How to Work a Room. Guests wait to be welcomed and made comfortable, whereas hosts actively do the welcoming and comforting. You are not, of course, the official host, but adopt a host’s habit of trying to put others at ease. That guy in the corner fussing with the ice in his drink? Strike up a conversation.

Have a plan, but be flexible. Hopefully, you will already have had time to browse the conference program, and even attend a few sessions. You’ve been making mental notes of people you’d like to meet. You may even have some opening gambits in mind (“I really enjoyed your talk on German Romanticism”; “I noticed from your bio that you attended Michigan!”). Don’t however, be a slave to the plan. Chat with anyone who looks interesting. In fact, chat with everyone.

Listen, and ask questions. Academics talk way too much about themselves. The best and easiest topics are wherever you and your conversation partner can find common ground. Work and research interests are the most obvious starting place. But people—often without realizing –drop hints as to what they will enjoy talking about. Listen attentively.  Did somebody just mention kids? Their cultivation of honeybees? Their first attempt at a half marathon? If you are too focused on the next brilliant thing you want to say, you might bypass both the comment and a promising avenue for conversation. Instead, follow the conversational breadcrumbs with follow up questions.

Put down the damn phone. At my most recent professional meeting, I walked into the reception area and saw two concentric circles. The inner circle clustered around the hors d’oeuvre table, and animated conversations were happening. The outer circle? Solitary individuals seated around the perimeter, each gazing at a phone. Yes, I know, sometimes you absolutely must drop everything and read an email from your book editor or that search committee chair, but too often the phone is a social crutch (and an obvious one). Checking email or your news feed may spare you the labor of seeking out a new conversation partner, but no one will approach you for a conversation either.

Wrap up. Surprisingly, the business card still retains currency in the 21st century. This doesn’t mean that your card won’t end up at the bottom of your new contact’s purse, possibly stuck to a partially unwrapped roll of cherry lifesavers. But the act of presenting someone your card is a graceful coda to a successful networking conversation. It leaves a positive, professional impression, and signals “I want to be in your network.”

Follow up. You, on the other hand, will not lose the cards you collect. As soon as you get home—even before filing your travel expenses!—you should send a gracious little email to anyone you’d like to keep in touch with. An affirmation of how much you enjoyed the conversation (and an indirect reminder of the common ground you share) is usually sufficient. This would also be a good time to add the new contacts to your LinkedIn network, if you have one.

Finally, rest assured that it gets easier, and not just because you are honing stellar networking skills. If and when you attend that same conference next year, you may be pleasantly surprised to realize how many familiar faces there now are. People will likely remember you and be glad to see you. You may, at this point, be tempted to form a conference “clique,” with a small group of people in your comfort zone. But this isn’t middle school. Continue to challenge yourself … but I don’t ever recommend riding the bull.