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How to survive creative conferences

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That awkward heat on the back of your neck. Panicked glances towards the nearest wall. “Why can’t I find anything to hold so my hands don’t feel awkward?”Conferences are one of the most profitable and valuable ways to spend your time as a creative professional. Whether you’re a designer, copywriter, UX person, or something in between, there’s a conference for you.

But if you’re drawn to these fields, you may also tend to favor alone time.

(I’m certainly that way.)

So how are you supposed to reap the fat 💸💸💸 benefits of going to conferences… without having to fake a phone call so you can leave? (I have done this.)

Here’s how I’ve developed great friendships and earned a big ROI from my conferences. If a guy whose motto is “I’m not here to make friends” can do this, so can you.

Set Low Expectations (Then Surprise Yourself)

The moments I feel crappy about myself at big events are when I’m failing to live up to my expectations. “Why aren’t I going out to more dinners?”

“I haven’t spoken with enough people today.”

“I haven’t closed any new deals yet.”

Those kinds of expectations are hard to live up to, even if you’re an outgoing person.

So shift them.

Go to one dinner. Introduce yourself to one person. Make a LinkedIn connect you can follow up with later.

The goal of being at an event is slowly, deliberately building your reputation in your community. Just showing up is a big step.

Tell People You Like Their Talks

Here’s a secret: the people who get on stage are struggling with impostor syndrome and insecurity just like the rest of us.

When you tell them what you liked about their talks, they’ll appreciate it.

Here’s a simple, stress-free script to chat with someone you think is a big deal:

  1. Confirm it’s them (“Hey, you’re so-and-so, right?”)
  2. Give them a sincere, thoughtful compliment (“I really appreciated what you said about…”)
  3. Ask them follow-up questions (“How did you come up with that idea?”)
  4. Then, IMPORTANT: ask them for a favor (“Hey, would it be okay if I asked you for X resource?”)
    Ben Franklin said asking people for favors is a way to make friends. And it’s true.

Don’t make it a crazy big or weird favor. Just something small, like emailing them after, or connecting on LinkedIn, or checking to get the name of a specific resource. Just something that’s a solid excuse to follow up when you’re not just a face in a big conference. 

They’ll remember you this way (win).

Hang Out in Waiting Areas

There’s usually less pressure and competition to talk with “big names” in waiting areas. Find those, hang out near them, and chat it up.

Don’t bother people, of course. But take a quick moment to connect.

Go to Dinner

You gotta eat. It’s okay to hear someone in your group, or near you, or that you don’t even know talk about dinner and ask if you can go.

“Hey, are you heading to dinner? Mind if I join you? I don’t have a dinner group yet.”

If they say they’re full, no worries. Go stand near someone else and get invited.

People are way more willing to invite strangers to their things at conferences.

Get Awkward With It

No one is born a natural at conferences, especially creatives.

So don’t worry about being awkward.

My strategy is to make jokes about how I’m the awkward guy, boring middle-aged dad, etc. and so I’m gonna be the one who’s like Genghis Khan. (All force, no grace.)

Call out the awkwardness and artificiality of conferences. People will laugh, you’ll all realize you’re equally nervous and weird, and it’ll be fine.

Walk Away Early

I tend to be the guy who hangs around a little too long.  You know, the one who’s still there after everyone else has gone home, and you’re like, “Hey Matt since you’re still here can you help clean up?”

I’m working on that by practicing how to gracefully exit conversations.

(If you have any tips, please feel free to drop a comment.)

Right before the conversation gets too stale, find a reason to change groups. Or just say, “I’m gonna go get a water, but great chatting with you.” Leave them wanting more.


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