Recently, I was introduced to a group of Swiss researchers at a conference. And so we went for ‘la bise’ (if you don’t know what ‘la bise’ is, you are a lucky person). Little did I know that the Swiss did 3 kisses, while back home we only do 2. So we kissed each other on the cheeks twice, and they went for a third kiss that I didn’t reciprocate. So I tried kissing them back to make up for the missed kiss, but by that time they had pulled away and I awkwardly kissed the air.
Anyway, the whole experience was awkward, and I had a crowd of Swiss researchers to witness my awkwardness. Swiss scientists, might I add, that I was thinking of applying for a postdoc with at the time.
What do you do then? Do you write in your application: “Dear Dr Who, remember how I kissed you awkwardly on the cheek at that conference? Unlike my bises, my research is tip top. Check out my CV.”
Did no one write, ever.
Though ‘la bise’ situations are inevitably awkward with francophones from different regions, most other networking experiences at conferences can actually be ok despite some awkwardness. In fact I really like meeting new people, it’s just breaking the ice that I find tough.
Here are a few of the strategies I have found for meeting new people at conferences, despite being a complete doofus.
First things first, I’ll let you into a little secret:
1. Stand awkwardly next to someone and smile
They will start a conversation just to get rid of the awkward feeling. Though ideally, a “do you mind if I come join you?” is also good.
2. If someone stands awkwardly next to you, introduce yourself and your colleagues.
Just do it, don’t give them a dirty look- you might be in their shoes at afternoon tea.
3. Do a poster
True story: I once asked someone to talk me through what they did on their poster, and they told me in an exasperated tone to ‘just read it’.
I know posters are thought of as the ugly ducklings of conferences – but they are great for talking to new people with similar interests. Don’t just stand by your poster while someone reads it, ask them if they would like you to talk them through what you did. In all likelihood they will, because let’s face it, no one can be arsed reading an entire poster while someone stares at them. Then ask them about their research. A poster should be viewed as an ice-breaker, and a way to meet people with similar research interests.
4. Get a networking buddy
If, like me, you are very shy, go around with a friend. With two people, it’s less daunting walking over and saying “Hi, my name is bob”. Plus it provides double the amount of conversation for those awkward silences.
5. Get your supervisor to introduce you to people
Some supervisors are not always in the mood for this, but sometimes, if you ask nicely, they will introduce you to people that they know have similar interests/research background.
6. Email someone you really want to meet before hand, and arrange a meeting
Otherwise you may never find them in a crowd of thousands…
7. Congregate around the food
Queuing for food is a good time to chat to people. People are bored and happy for a distraction. Also sitting at a random table at a conference dinner forces you to talk to someone completely random, for an extended amount of time, so you get a chance to know them and their research a little.
8. Find conference orphans
A lot of people go to a conference alone, and end up no knowing anyone. Go talk to them, they are nice. You may be in their shoes next time.
9. Conferences are not jut about presenting your research, but also discovering other people’s research
The most annoying thing I find at conferences is when people go about promoting their own research, but do not take the time to listen to other people about their research. They are missing something fundamental, in that a conference is about understanding what other people’s research has in common with our own. I’ve learnt a lot from talking to random people, including unusual/unexpected methods for solving a problem I might be having. Particularly from people in other fields.
10. Talk to everyone and anyone at a conference
I know a lot of people who feel like the conference is a networking failure because they only spoke to random PhD students, not big wigs. So what? PhD students are smart, and are the big wigs of tomorrow. Befriend anyone and everyone who will talk to you, and they might just surprise you with some witty insights into your research. Or you could just talk about the hot chocolate.
11. Stick with it
Talking to strangers is awkward and embarrassing, and sometimes people give you funny looks if you just walk up and say “Hi, do you mind if I come join you? I am bobette, what do you work on?”. But more often than not, people are happy someone came to ask them about their research. Stick with it through the awkwardness. The more time you spend with someone, the less awkward it is. Awkward silences don’t last forever. Talk about your research, their research, the conference, where you traveled from, paper revisions, your research lab culture, the food, anything…
It gets easier, I promise. The more people you meet, the funner it gets.
Basically, just be polite and nice to everyone. We’re all in the same awkward boat.
Of course this is what works for me – it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Fair dinkums. And I must warn that you do get the occasional “how dare you come talk to me, can’t you see I am in a clique?” look. That’s fine. Move on over to the buffet and stuff your face with cake. Someone will probably come and stand awkwardly next to you.