This week I was lucky enough to attend the Three Minute Thesis competition final at the University of Queensland. A total of 33 universities from around Australia, New Zealand and Fiji participated. I was there as the RMIT University support person for our champion, Ali Daliri who, despite a heroic effort didn’t win.
Lots of people in the research education field were present, so for me it had all the benefits of a conference without the hassle of presenting a paper. Since this experience is fresh, and I have already done a top 5 on presenting your research in three minutes, for this Thursday’s top 5 I thought I would talk about networking at academic conferences
Many lists of this sort are aspirational, mine is more mundane and strategic – but you guys seem to like that stuff 🙂
1) Talk about the papers.
At the first conference I attended I was surprised by what I mess I was at the morning tea table. While everyone else seemed to know people and slip into little chatty cliques, I stood there holding my cup feeling as awkward as a teenager at a blue light disco. This was disconcerting because I am normally at ease socially (my mother worked hard on this believe me – I am not a natural).
When I got home I told one of my supervisors how I felt and he gave me some pointers for starting up conversation, one of which was ‘just talk about the papers’. So now, if I am lonely, I look for another solo player and introduce myself. Then I ask about which is the best paper they have seen so far. After this the conversation usually starts to flow.
2) Become social glue.
Point two follows on from point one. Once you have made a friend by bonding over papers it is easy to slip into just hanging out with them at the next break, but it’s important to resist the temptation. However it is rude to just ignore your new buddy – the point is to make lasting friends remember? So I usually suggest to my new friend that we try to befriend another solo player together.I then try to build from there, periodically leaving my new clique to bring in new people.
The first day can be hard work, but it pays off. Lessening the social load by doing the hard yards with new people makes you everyone’s instant friend. If you persevere, by the second day you will have met at least four or five people and have been asked out to dinner – I guarantee it. If you go to repeat conferences this is a strategy which pays great dividends over time.
3) Be prepared.
Along with the obvious things you need, such as business cards, computer and phone chargers etc, don’t forget to take extra headache medicine! Lots of people at conferences are a little stressed out / jet-lagged / hung over and many of them forget to be prepared for this.
Luckily I am a bit of a fan of the old headache medication and consequently have made lifelong friends after producing magic pills from my bag. The power of bathroom bonding – where such requests are usually aired – cannot be over looked and provides another avenue to activate the strategy outlined in points one and two.
4) Remember the rule of four (or less). There will be times, of course, when you want to talk to some established ‘big names’. They are usually surrounded by hangers on and people they met when they were newbies at conferences and have known for years, so this can be difficult.
Since I am not a natural, I always think about these social problems analytically. This is why, some time ago, I read with interest ‘Grooming, gossip and the evolution of language’ by Robin Dunbar. One of Dunbar’s more fascinating theories is that our brains can only handle so many people talking at once. In fact he claims our capacity is limited to four.
In groups greater than four, one person will be ‘holding the floor’, for instance by telling some kind of story, or the group will splinter. The next time you are at a party test out this theory by trying to join a group of four and see what happens (and let me know the result!).
When your target ‘star’ is talking in a pair it can seem rude to break in, but you can do it if you hover near them and try to make eye contact. If there is a group of three however it is much easier and you should go for it by just joining in and saying something – humans love a fourth.
However if the star is already a group of four remember if you make the attempt now you will have to be a ‘group breaker’ – or relegated to being a listener. Being a group breaker has a social cost – it’s likely you will need to work harder to not appear rude.
Oh and make sure you have some good questions prepared for the star so you can sustain the conversation after all this effort!
5) Don’t drink alcohol – especially at conference dinners.
I know that one of my good friends (who shall remain nameless) would violently disagree with me on this point. He talks fondly of the friendships he has forged over a red wine or five at conferences. However, unlike my friend, who is genial and funny under the influence, I do not hold my liquor well.
They say your true self comes out when you are drunk and I turn into a clumsy, affectionate and compulsive over sharer. I do not come across as a smart and switched on person who can talk the finer points of Actor Network Theory on demand – which is how I would rather be remembered. I have had to work hard at being relaxed without needing a drink around my peers and colleagues, but it has been worth it.
So that’s my top five strategies for schmoozing on the conference circuit – what are yours?