Today’s blog isn’t about writing manuscripts. Rather, it’s about something just as important – attending conferences to share your research and learn from others. Based on my Twitter feed, many graduate students feel a bit anxious or intimidated about attending their first conference, especially if going solo. They’re not sure how to initiate interactions with other attendees, or how to get the most out of a conference. But it’s a great opportunity to meet new people and learn about and enjoy the new city you’re in.

Today I’ll share some introduction and networking tips that I’ve picked up over the many years of attending medical conferences. And yes, even a seasoned conference attendee like me feels intimidated sometimes, especially when attending an organization’s event for the first time, or when the room is full of highly qualified specialists, and I’m “just a writer.”

The first thing to remember is that networking is really just about getting to know other people, building friendships and collegial relationships. If you’re not sure where to start, focus on asking questions and listening to the answers. Most people love to talk about themselves, their research, their experiences. If you encourage them to talk, they’ll think you’re a great listener and appreciate your company.

First things first – how to introduce yourself? Make sure your badge is in plain view. Sometimes you can add fun ribbons or tags to the bottom of the badge; they can be great conversation starters. You’ll need to decide whether to introduce yourself by first name only, full name, or full name with title. This will depend on the general culture of the conference – how other people introduce themselves – plus your own experiences and preferences. Also be prepared with a short tag line to share something about yourself: “I’m a grad student/post doc at X institution” or your research area (15 words or less). Ideally, something that will be a conversation starter and encourage questions. When introducing yourself, be sure to make eye contact and smile. If hands aren’t full with coffee, drinks or food, give a firm but brief handshake.

Ok, you’ve introduced yourself. Now what? Simple questions to start conversations work best:

“Tell me about your research.” Or “What excites you about your research?” (Tip: Also be prepared to answer this question.)

“What projects are you working on?”

“What research group/lab are you with?” or “What is your role at X?” These questions safely avoid age- or gender-biased assumptions about whether that person is a grad student or the PI who runs the group.

“Have you been to this conference before? … It’s my first one.” This opens the door for an experienced attendee to share the benefit of their experience with you and give you tips for what to attend or what to skip. And if they’re also new to the event – automatic bonding moment!

“Are you enjoying the conference so far?”

“What interested you in this conference?”

“What sessions/speakers are you looking forward to?”

“What has been your favorite session so far?”

“What are you looking forward to the rest of the day?”

“Which break-out session(s) are you going to?”

“What did you think of the keynote, X session or Y speaker?”

“Have you been to this city before?” Again, if it’s your first time there, and the other person has been there before, they can share tips of what to see or do or where to eat while you’re there. Alternatively, if you know the city and they don’t, you can share your tips.

How to break the ice in a room full of people? Look for people who are also solo, standing alone. They’re probably just as anxious about approaching a stranger and introducing themselves as you are. And they’ll be relieved someone approaches them and wants to talk to them.

If you see a person(s) taking a selfie, or a group taking a photo, offer to take the photo of all of them together. They’ll be grateful and will be eager to find out who you are.

Get to a session a few minutes early and pick a partially full table or row. Then introduce yourself and use one of the openers from above, or a question about that session: “What made you sign up for this session?” or “Which speaker are you most interested in?” if it’s a moderated series of talks.

Standing in line for something is a great way to meet people and is less intimidating than approaching a stranger. Use the time in the registration line, coffee line, food line, or bar line to start a conversation using one of the questions above.

If you’re really stuck and don’t feel ready to approach other attendees, you can “practice” your introduction and opening questions on exhibitors at the trade show. Look for a booth that isn’t busy. The exhibitors will be thrilled to have someone to talk to, and they are usually dynamic and seasoned at making people feel comfortable. Pay attention to the questions they ask you to get you to open up. These might work for you, as well.

The conference organizers always have an information booth at the event. They’re also very approachable and can give suggestions about social events to attend, where is a good place to meet people, or even specific people to connect with. They want to make your experience better, so you’ll return next year.

You can also network ahead of the conference. Use LinkedIn and Twitter to share that you’re planning to attend the event, using the organization’s or conference’s hashtag. Look for other people using the same hashtag and comment on their posts as well. People will become familiar with your name and face, and you might even recognize each other at the event, to make it a bit less awkward. You can potentially even arrange to meet them at the conference.

Some other tips:

Bring lots of business cards. Yes, people still use them to remember your name, get your email address, Twitter handle, etc.

Wear comfortable shoes.

Don’t assume someone else is also a grad student, even if they’re standing at a poster. I’ve met the Department Chair of a prestigious university, overseeing over 30 surgeons and 70 fellows, presenting a poster.

When attending a networking event, don’t feel you have to “work the room” and meet a dozen people to call the event successful for yourself. It can be okay to meet and have genuine conversations with only one or two people. You build on this over a series of events. Consider each half-day of sessions and each social event within the conference as a separate event. So, if you’ve had genuine conversations with 2 or 3 new people each day of the conference, you’re doing well. Setting this kind of expectation is especially important for an introvert who feels a knot in the stomach at the thought of networking.

And be yourself. Don’t try to be someone you think others want to meet. Be genuine. The people you’ll form lasting connections with are the ones who meet authentic you.

I hope these tips will encourage you to initiate some interactions at your next conference. I’d love to hear if they worked for you and made the experience easier.

Have a suggestion for a future blog topic and/or writing tip? I welcome comments below.