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Sparking Conversations at Conferences

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Does this sound familiar to you? You attend a conference but mostly keep the casual conversations to the people you know anyway. Or how about trying to get coffee or a a fourth piece of cake—it’s free, right?—whilst carefully avoiding contact with other strange creatures lurking around, also eyeing on that rapidly declining stock of cake?

I’ve never been really good at approaching strangers, but at least at a tech conference, chances are you have something in common: the very subject of the talks at the venue. Yet some organizations make a huge effort in trying to connect attendees, while others are more laid-back and “let the community form” without nudging. The additional problem with most hybrid virtual/physical conferences I’ve been to is that another group of people back home, clutched behind a screen, also want to connect—okay let’s assume some do—but luckily they can’t have that last piece of cake.

The awkwardness of those first few sentences that should bootstrap a conversation never really disappear, even with a gentle nudge. But I found the nudge itself to be an invaluable tool, for myself and for others, to connect and talk about something else besides all that stupid tech stuff. For example, a few years ago, I had to submit a few keywords that “describe me”. Those ended up on a bigger name tag, so when walking around during breaks, you could try to read others' hobbies and find another way to connect with them. That was a lot of fun, and it’s sad to say that the 8+ conferences I’ve been to in the past 4 years, I’ve only seen something like that once or twice.

During a break in-between sessions at the ElixirConf EU two weeks ago, my friend came up with another cool way to connect: “Why don’t they print those name tags in the form of a jigsaw puzzle piece? That way you have to find your partner who you literally connect with!" What a brilliant idea!

Instead, they printed your name, your organization, and your status in the hierarchy (attendee, speaker, organizer): boring! I wish I abused the registration form and put up “sourdough bread baking” in the “organization” field. It turned out to be unneeded: somehow, everywhere I go, I end up unconsciously steering any conversation towards bread baking. It happened again in London. As soon as they say “oh cool you’re a baker?" I’ve got them hooked! Thanks to COVID, many also respond with “Oh yeah I tried sourdough stuff during lockdown” and we can take it from there, exchanging tips and tricks.

Sure, we talked about the Erlang OTP and about to type or not to type. But isn’t it much more fun to talk about buttery pistachio swirls and old Game Boy games during a break? Isn’t it called break for a reason?

While we’re at it, why don’t conference organizers:

  • Deal out different stickers you can stick on your shirt depending on your interests;
  • Have buddy programs where a senior attendee shows the junior around during and after the official hours (this is done at SIGCSE venues, for instance);
  • Provide an input field to enter your blog and showcase that on the name card with pride (I always look up people I meet in the hopes of adding an entry to the RSS feed—surprisingly little were added);
  • Provide a poster or big image where everyone can draw on to secretly exchange information (this was sort-of done at ElixirConf to showcase the road to 10 years of Elixir which was great);
  • Stop relying on Twitter (and to a lesser extend, Facebook) to spread the word (don’t forget to use hashtag-whateva! Most people I met there asked me if I was on Twitter to follow me. No, but I have a blog… Uuh okay, I’m gonna get some more cake!);

During COVID lockdown, some virtual conferences attempted to use an MMO-style interface in which you are an avatar that virtually walks around at an exhibition. As soon as you walk up to another person or a group, your microphone and camera is automatically turned on and you can hear the conversation of that group and chime in. While I liked the concept, I experienced a lot more anxiety trying to navigate the cumbersome UI and was constantly afraid of suddenly bumping into someone. “Natural bumping” felt more safe, but it was an admirable effort.

In general, I have the feeling a lot more can be done to to make people at ease during conferences. Some have traveled very far just to be there, so why not help them connect more easily with others?

What are your unique (or uniquely awkward) experiences with striking conversations and connecting with others at conferences?

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I'm Wouter Groeneveld, a Brain Baker, and I love the smell of freshly baked thoughts (and bread) in the morning. I sometimes convince others to bake their brain (and bread) too.

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