Beyond the Journal: The science of communication

Networking at conferences: breaking into the circle

07 Sep 2018
Walking into registration on the first morning of a conference can feel intimidating, but conferences bring personal connections that can enrich your career.
By Ruth Francis

As the new semester begins, and with it with travel to conferences, I have been thinking about how to get the most out of a trip – especially the networking opportunities. Being somewhere in person brings contacts and connections that aren’t made by staying in and simply following a conference hashtag.

But on entering an event where circles of people are already engaged in conversation, even the most extroverted among us can imagine everyone already knows everyone else and they’re a lone outsider. Trust me, this is not the case and there are ways to ease into the milieu.

There are the chance connections: chatting in the queue for that first coffee, or realising you’ve been in the same sessions as someone else all day and mustering the courage to exchange thoughts. 

Others can be preplanned. You’ve probably gone through the programme and chosen the sessions you want to attend; are there speakers you want to meet in person? One way to strike up a conversation is to flag on social media that you’re excited about a particular panel and tag the speakers. Seeking out the speaker before the discussion is even better. Whether or not they suffer from last-minute nerves, having chatted to someone who is looking forward to hearing their talk will give the speaker a boost. And, if you wait until after the session, there will likely be a queue! 

During coffee breaks and receptions, it is possible to jump into a smaller group if you hear they are talking about a subject that you are keen to discuss. Stand nearby and listen for a pause in the conversation, take a breath, smile and introduce yourself before offering your thoughts on the topic. You could even start by saying that you didn’t mean to interrupt but you wanted to join because it’s a subject you follow. 

I have found it can be effective to seek out another sole attendee and strike up a conversation with them – you’ll probably be helping them to feel more comfortable in the situation as well. Look around and see if you recognise anyone who contributed during a discussion and go follow up with them on the point they made. Share your own experiences or ask them to tell you more about what they said or thought. Often, others will join where you lead and you will have formed your own circle in no time.

It is easy to fall back on your phone rather than seek out opportunities to speak to others. Don’t! Engaging peers on social media and making connections using the # is a good way to network at a conference, but not to the detriment of in-person contact. The only thing more off-putting than a circle of people with no entry point is someone standing alone looking at their phone, as if to studiously put off anyone from talking to them. 

Ruth Francis is a communications expert with more than 17 years experience working in academia and publishing, including Springer Nature, BioMed Central, Cancer Research UK and King's College London.