I nervously grinned at the security guard, my scarf casually covering my not-VIP-enough-for-this-building conference pass. Charm was unnecessary, though; I was floating through the highly-patrolled doorway on the arm of the event’s star speaker. No one would have dared to question her. She was, and still is, my lifelong hero. I’d run into her for the first time on the sidewalk two minutes earlier. Then, just like that, she’d insisted on bringing me to her talk, one that low-level attendees weren’t invited to. It was a talk, I suspected, that might change my life. (I was right.)
Here’s the takeaway: lovely things can happen at conferences, if you’re prepared to make them happen. And doing so is deceptively simple.
The Ultimate Conference Rule: Everyone is Awesome
There are lots of rules for making the most of conferences. They often involve business cards, highlighted agendas, and a color-coded lists of objectives. And they often lose sight of a crucial point: that conferences are made of people. This human-centered focus led me to The Ultimate Conference Rule. Which is, simply, that everyone is awesome. (Don’t forget the corollary, which indicates that you are also awesome.) There are great reasons for you to know that person in front of you, even if they’re not immediately apparent. The Rule has changed my life in more ways than I can count.
How the rule works
If everyone is awesome, including you, then you have nothing to fear from hurling yourself over the sometimes-scary cliff of random new encounters, even if you’re silently yelling “Nooooo! I’m kind of an introvert!” on the way down. (Believe me, I know how that feels.) Here’s how it works: Step 1: Assume that each new person you meet, or bump into, or accidentally spill coffee on, is wonderful. You just have to figure out why. Step 2: Smile, say hi, introduce yourself, and shake their hand. Step 3: Dig in. Ask them questions. Listen. Tell them what you’re up to. Offer to help. If you know something cool about them, mention it and find out more.
The effects of the rule
Since I started approaching people based on the Rule, long before I identified it as such, the following things have happened: Jerri, who’d been on my radar for a while, coincidentally sat behind me at a Startingbloc keynote. I said “Hi! Aren’t you Jerri?” We became instant friends. We were also business partners for two years, which taught me a ton. As the lights dimmed at The Feast, I traded business cards with Danny, a super-talented designer. We turned out to have so much in common that I refer to him as my long-lost twin. After a DEMAN panel, I asked a legendary bassist and producer for his thoughts about creating a life around music. Later, he dared me to sing in front of a room full of people. Terrified, I did. We’re now working together. On the way to a talk at the Skoll World Forum, I started chatting with a kind-looking gentleman to my right on the sidewalk. He turned out to be the incredible filmmaker Taghi Amirani, who has inspired me more than he knows. And that’s just a sampling. The best part? Putting yourself out there can help others become more comfortable doing the same. My friend Sara told me that our first impromptu conversation, after a keynote, helped her get over her natural shyness and eagerly connect with new people. What if we all did that for each other at conferences?
How to make the rule easier to follow
Do your research. Read the bios. Make a note of people who already hold interest for you on paper, remember them, and be open to finding them. Be aware. Put your phone down. Look around. See who you’re naturally drawn to. Smile. A lot. Don’t get discouraged. Some people aren’t at their most awesome all the time. If you have a sub-par interaction, chalk it up to a bad day on that person’s part and don’t sweat it.
Making the rule your own
Remember my hero from the opening story? When I saw her on the sidewalk, my bumbling opening line was literally “Hi! You are my hero. Can I… um, give you a hug?” I knew enough about her to believe that she’d be receptive to that, and I also really like hugging people. That may not be your style. Although the Rule does naturally involve leaving your comfort zone, you don’t have to be a crazy extrovert to use it. You can be quiet, quippy, serious, whatever – just be unabashedly yourself, and remember that you and every other person have something to offer each other. Keep that in mind. Now, go discover the awesome.