Introducing yourself can be especially intimidating if you are not a native English speaker. Larisa Olesova encouraged those whose native language is not English to “practice small talk in English at home and then talk to anyone at the conference just to practice good professional English.”
Be a Conference Angel – John Curry
I'd say one of the things I always try to do is talk to people sitting alone. There are a lot of folks who are just as lost, lonely, nervous as you are. Somebody has to make the first move. Some of the folks I look forward most to seeing at conferences are people I met in random places. For example, I met Jin (Joy) Mao on the airport shuttle on our way to the conference hotel about 15 years ago or so. Now we have served in division leadership together, and we are currently editing a special issue of TechTrends together. I look for folks waiting by an elevator or who are trying to find rooms (you can tell who is there for the conference by the tag, right?) and introduce myself and ask where they are going or what their favorite session they've been to has been. Granted, I'm in a position now within my organization that many know who I am, but I tried to do it even before then. Most folks wish they had someone to talk to. Most folks wish they had someone to eat with. Most folks don't want to experience the conference alone. So go be someone else's conference angel!
Be Curious and Ask Questions
As you meet new people, show genuine interest in who they are and what they do. Tonia Dousay shared:
Don't be afraid to ask questions, and be genuinely interested in the answers. You never know when you might be the only person familiar with a topic simply because of a chance encounter. And you'll know who to contact when you have more questions or can recommend an expert on the topic.
Cecil Short experienced this first-hand as a graduate student, when he met Tonia Dousay at a poster presentation on technological pedagogical and content knowledge (TPACK). Not only did Cecil learn about a new framework, he developed a friendship that led to conference planning collaborations.
When you attend sessions, stay present and focused on what is being shared. At the end of the presentation, you will likely have an opportunity to ask questions. Show your curiosity and interest by asking a question—it’s a great networking and learning opportunity. Charles Graham shared, “Being curious about others' presentations and ideas has helped me to ask meaningful questions that sometimes lead to further conversations and interactions. It is important to always approach asking questions respectfully and with sincere intent to understand."
Rather than leaving immediately after sessions, linger longer to talk with the presenter. Often a “thank you” can turn into a memorable hallway conversation. Like Curtis Bonk and Thomas Reeves (see the callout box below), some of the most famous scholars in our field are also the most generous with their time and have a soft spot for those new to the field, so attend their sessions and do not be intimidated to talk with them after.
Networking with the Stars – Thomas Reeves and Curtis Bonk
When I went to my first AECT in 1975, Professor Don Ely encouraged me to stay after sessions and speak with the presenters no matter how "famous" they were. I made this a lifetime habit and encouraged my UGA students to do the same. We have a weekly lecture here at The Spires at Berry College, and my wife (also a former Professor) and I always make sure to go up to the lecturer and let them know how much we appreciate them and their presentation. –Thomas Reeves
Go to talks of famous people or those you want to know better. Then at the end of the talk, walk up to the front of the room and ask to get your picture with them. And then send him or her a digital copy of one or more pics after the conference. When you send it, you might include a question or two or three. In the exchange, you have just expanded your network. –Curtis Bonk
Not only can you linger longer after sessions you attend, you may also choose to have a “hallway conversation” rather than attend a concurrent session. Rob Moore added that if you need to catch up on work, rather than returning to your hotel room, “do work from the lobby as much as possible since that’s where people tend to congregate.” It’s a great place to see friends and make new ones.
Joining the Hallway Conversation – Elizabeth Langran
Don’t underestimate the value of “hallway conversations.” At a conference, you certainly want to take advantage of the concurrent sessions, but some of my best conferences where I learned the most and set the groundwork for future collaborations were ones where I spent time hanging out in the hallway areas and getting into conversations with other conference attendees.
Find Your Academic Home
Florence Martin shared, “I would recommend new attendees get involved in division or SIG meetings and activities, as that will help them connect with those who have similar interests.” SIGs often have open membership meetings that are a good place to network, but don’t stop there. Some of the best SIG networking opportunities are less formal than membership meetings and can take the form of dinners, SIG-specific presentations, or SIG social events such as casual game nights, sponsored dinners, or even yoga/running meet-ups. Following SIGs on social media, or joining their other communication platforms, can be a great way to learn about these opportunities and become familiar with people’s names before the conference. During the conference, SIG members may also post invitations to impromptu meet-ups.
As previously mentioned, some conferences may have a SIG specifically for graduate students. Even if you do not seek leadership opportunities in these SIGs, they are still a great place to start. You will meet other graduate students as well as executive members of the conference. Members of the graduate student SIG are the future leaders of the conference organization, so establishing relationships with them is great for your longevity and involvement in the conference. We encourage graduate students to not only get involved with a graduate student SIG but also a SIG based on their research or practice interests.
Never Eat Alone
Meals and drinks are great networking opportunities. Rob Moore advised conference goers to “never eat alone.” Rick West elaborated, “try to find groups to eat with, even if it's peers as a student. Your student peers will be leaders in the field someday.” It is natural to gravitate toward eating with people you know, and that is good. What is better is to invite others you do not know to join you as well. West added an example from a recent conference where he wanted to get to better know someone he interacted with on social media, so he asked if the person wanted to catch lunch. Pretty soon, the group expanded, and he was able to meet several new people.
Get a Little Help from Your Friends (and Mentors)
All of the tips above are much easier with help from others. Encourage friends and colleagues to attend with you. Conferences are better when you attend with someone you already know. If you are a graduate student, ask to shadow your mentor or other faculty. Their inside knowledge can be extremely helpful by showing you the lay of the land and introducing you to others. Curtis Bonk suggested, “Go to the conference socials (perhaps with your professor(s) or senior people) and watch them get excited to see old friends and wait to be introduced.” As John Curry, remembered:
With David Merrill as my chair, when I was with him, EVERYONE wanted to talk to him. But whenever someone would come up and start talking to him, he would always say, "Do you know John?" And he'd introduce me. I got to know so many people that way. Now I do the same with my students.
Graduate students and early career faculty and professionals can receive mentoring but they can also be a mentor. Elizabeth Langran explained, “You can be a mentor too! Even if you are early in your career, there’s probably someone at the conference who is even newer than you.”
Navigating the Network – Leanna Archambault
For many of us in the learning/instructional design and technology space, it can be challenging to find our place at a conference, especially when it may seem like everyone already knows everyone else. Early on, I certainly struggled to find my niche. I tried attending newcomer sessions and talking to editors at “Meet the Editors” sessions, but on my own, it was difficult to make connections. As a result, very little networking happened until I met a senior scholar at a small conference who introduced me to her doctoral student, Kathryn Kennedy. As it turned out, not only was Kathryn interested in the same research topics, but also was at a similar stage in her graduate work. It was connecting with this “friend of a friend” concept that proved invaluable. We went on to become close colleagues and friends, collaborating on a number of projects. We also began attending conferences together, which proved extremely helpful. As it turns out, for me, the “buddy system” was extremely useful when it came to networking. Kathryn was able to introduce me to her colleagues, and together we felt more comfortable meeting new people. We soon felt ready to take on a leadership role, starting out as SIG Co-Chairs. This role provided additional structure to the conference, with required leadership meetings where we were able to connect with more senior faculty.
Over time, I met many colleagues this way –through leadership gatherings as well as being introduced to friends of friends. At mid-career, I felt ready to take on a larger leadership role at the council level, which provided the opportunity to engage in planning meetings and have additional input on the conference itself. However, I still looked for those close trusted colleagues who were interested in serving together as a support system. For me, having at least one “wing person” has been a key strategy to making the most out of the networking opportunities that conferences can provide. Now, as a more senior scholar myself, I make it a point to introduce others, especially if they are doctoral students, and include them in social gatherings. My hope is that it helps others connect, expands their network, and makes conferencing a little less daunting—just as it did for me many years ago.
Congratulations! You have made it through the conference! However, you are not done with your conference networking quite yet. Even after the conference, you can enrich the time you spent networking if you pursue lasting connections with those you met.
Reach Out to New Colleagues
It is important that you maintain your connections to the people you met at the conference, especially if you plan to attend the conference again or if you met anyone you might want to work with in the future. Go through the records of handouts, business cards, and contact information you collected at the conference. Send emails to anyone who might provide opportunities for collaboration in the future. As Mary Rice noted, “I take people seriously when they say they are interested in doing something together, and I remember them.” If you have not already, connect with the people you met by following them on social media. Follow up with others about potential collaboration opportunities discussed during conference sessions, in the hallways, or over dinner. In fact, while you are at the conference or flying home, you can draft emails that you schedule to go out to your new colleagues a week later when memories of the conference begin to fade. If you exchanged contact information with those who attended your session, send updates about your work when it becomes publicly available.
Organize Conference Notes
During a conference, you encounter a lot of information. Post-conference it is important to create a system for tracking any handouts, presentations, or notes from the sessions you attended. Possible systems include keeping a well-organized file folder in Google Drive or on a Flash Drive. Cecil Short uses Google Drive and has a parent folder for each organization’s conference that he has attended. Within that folder are folders labeled for certain years of the conference, e.g., “AECT 2021,” “AECT 2022,” or “AECT 2023.” Within the annually named folders are places for proposals, presentations, and notes (Figure 2). Other knowledge management systems may allow you to tag session notes and presentations according to authors or topics.
Conferences are a part of academic life that offer unique networking opportunities. However, at times, networking can feel a bit overwhelming if it is your first—or even 21st—conference. Networking is easier with a friend and/or mentor by your side. We also hope that the 4Ps can help you to prepare, provide, participate, and pursue networking opportunities not only at the conference but throughout the year. The ideas in this chapter can help you to think big about conference networking, but we encourage you to start small. Set achievable networking goals, and celebrate your accomplishments.