Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Tale of Two Conferences: or, why it's important to talk to people in professional settings

I recently returned from the 2014 ALSC Institute in Oakland. It was a great conference, with tons of thoughtful presentations, insightful ideas, and engaging conversations with colleagues. One thing that really struck me after the conference, however, was a statement I heard from a number of friends and colleagues: "Wow, Amy knew everyone at the conference."

My response to that statement, if I may, is a story.
It's 2011. I've just graduated from library school, I have a temporary reference assistant job but am looking for a full-time professional position, and I head to New Orleans for the ALA Annual Conference. While there, I attend a ton of sessions to learn about programs in public library settings; I would love to talk to several of the presenters about their sessions, but I'm too intimidated to say more than just "thank you." The only non-program event I attend is a resume and cover letter review. I mostly explore New Orleans on my own, and my one "social" event is having dinner with friends from library school. I don't dare venture outside my comfort zone. 
Fast forward to 2012. I have a professional position, which I'm sure does something to add to my general level of confidence in professional settings. I go to Indianapolis for the ALSC National Institute, and as I drive to Indy, I have a little talk with myself: "Amy, you're going to be surrounded by youth librarians. If any group of librarians could be 'your people,' these are your people. Make a point of introducing yourself to at least three new people every day, and don't eat any meals by yourself. Make some friends." 
So when I arrive in Indianapolis, I go to the pre-Institute Happy Hour. I didn't know anyone, and at first it's awkward, but after the first minute or two, I introduce myself to my table mates and we get to chatting. Many are longtime ALSC members, but others are relative newbies like myself. We have a good evening, and as a result I see some familiar faces at the opening address the next morning. 
I attend sessions, and when I really like an idea or want to know more about a presenter's content, I go up to the presenter after the program, introduce myself, and talk to the person. They are universally gracious and happy to chat more about the work they love. It's like talking to a fellow enthusiast, not like talking to an expert who sees me as a novice. It's always a level conversation. 
I attend ALSC 101 and participate in their icebreaker bingo game. The game is all about rapidly meeting new people, and when there is time following the formal ALSC 101 content about committees, etc., I stick around with a group and chat with people more in depth. I talk to tons of people, all of whom are happy to talk about libraries and kids. Through no planning or design, I also talk to a few ALSC Board members, who are very welcoming. I talk to the current ALSC president, who politely inquires about my committee work. (I'm fairly certain this particular conversation led to my appointment to the Newbery Committee.) 
I talk to people. I sit with people. And I make connections that are rejuvenated at future conferences. I may not keep in touch with every acquaintance throughout the year, but when we see each other at conferences, we chat about work and life. We have a professional relationship.

These two conference experiences--2011 in New Orleans and 2012 in Indianapolis--were so wholly different for me. And, honestly, I think the major difference in my experience comes down to my willingness to introduce myself and join a conversation. I was not a person who ever felt comfortable doing that, but for one conference, it's what I did. And you know what? All it takes is introducing yourself and talking with people at one conference, and then you'll have familiar faces at conferences ever after. Everyone starts off as the person who feels like an outsider, but once you've talked to people, you are never that outsider again. You have a network.

So, if you're still reading, and you are one of those people who sees someone at a conference talking with bunches of people, these are my four tips for conferencing:
  1. Introduce yourself and join the conversation. Does that feel awkward and imposing to you? It's not, because a) introductions are NEVER as awkward as having no idea who a person is; and b) conversations happening at public events are definitely public. Trust me, if a conversation is meant to be private at a conference it's not taking place in a space where others have an opportunity to join. So go up to a group, introduce yourself, and then participate in the conversation.
  2. Presenters are people too. So are board members, conference organizers, etc. Do you like to hear that someone enjoyed your work? So do they! So if you found a presentation or speech interesting and want to know more, approach the person. They will almost definitely be happy to have the conversation. And if they happen to be busy in that particular moment, they'll likely give you their card or contact info to continue the conversation later. Related: If someone gives you their card, it does actually meant that they are open to an email exchange.
  3. Sit at that table. If you're at a conference where there's a large banquet-style meal without assigned seats, finding somewhere to sit can feel stressful. Don't let it get to you. Instead, find a table with an open seat--possibly one where it looks like table mates are already chatting--and ask if you can join. Once you've joined, introduce yourself and joint the conversation (do you sense a theme here?). If you're at a conference where attendees are left to get meals on their own, find a group and suggest all getting a meal together. You can get separate checks, and then you can have conversations over dinner that leave you with familiar faces for the rest of the conference. Dining mates can turn into colleagues, friends, and collaborators, but not if you're dining alone or in silence.
  4. Go to ALSC 101, or whatever your division's equivalent is. Organizers of these introductory sessions realize that conferences are overwhelming and socially intimidating for many new attendees. Heck, they can be overwhelming and socially intimidating for seasoned conference-goers. So they offer these events that are part information, part structured social time. You know how you offer icebreaker activities in your programs for school-age kids and teens? Yeah, librarians benefit from those activities too. So attend, participate, and meet people who have professional interests that align with yours. That's the way to make colleagues and connections in this profession.

One reason I love going to conferences is because I get to see inspiring colleagues and friends whom I otherwise only follow from afar--Twitter, ALSC Updates, etc. So, yes, I talk to lots of people at conferences, because I find that to be the most rewarding part of my attendance. But I didn't always experience conferences that way. It's all because I decided it was important to talk.


  1. Thank you for the great advice. I'm am new to the career and haven't joined any professional organizations yet (bad, librarian!) I appreciate the tips on getting the most bang for your buck when it comes to conferences and networking!

  2. Yes, thanks for this. Even though I'm sure all of you fabulous Twitter-brarians are just as lovely in-person, it's still a bit intimidating to actually come up and speak with you all! It's nice to know I'm not completely alone in my mindset though and I'm going to try to follow your advice while I'm at Midwinter. :)

  3. Amy -- This is a wonderful article, with loads of great advice. It's also a very compassionate article, recognizing that it isn't easy -- even for people who aren't necessarily super shy -- to step out of their comfort zone and meet new people. Somehow, it always seems easier for other people, but that's not necessarily true at all -- it just looks that way. Your article also is a wonderful reminder for those of us who now feel more comfortable at conferences because we know more people (it wasn't always that way!) to remember to reach out and welcome new folks into our circles.

  4. This is very practical advice. As a shy person, I have often felt intimidated and overwhelmed at conference, but over the years I have done some of the things you suggest here and it really helps.