How to Attend a Conference as Yourself

I often feel awkward when I go to a conference. Reluctant to sidle up to a stranger and introduce myself, I roam, like I did at college parties, self-conscious, seltzer water in hand, not fitting in. In the midst of a sea of people chatting away enthusiastically, I am uncomfortable and alone.

But when my plane from New York landed in Austin, Texas for South By Southwest, the music, film, and interactive conference, I was excited. I was speaking on a panel and, since everyone told me SXSW is a blast, I had given myself an extra day to explore the conference.

But it didn’t play out like I had hoped. I arrived just in time for my panel, then I did a book signing for 18 Minutes and then, well, then I was at a conference. I went to a conference party and just stood there, shy, embarrassed, and reluctant to reach out and meet people.

I was annoyed with myself. What’s my deal?

I was about to leave when I thought, instead of judging myself, why not take this as an opportunity to explore an uncomfortable emotion? So I stood there and felt what awkward felt like.

It felt awkward. But, soon, I recognized something deeper behind my shyness, something more pernicious.

Once I finished the panel, I had no role and no purpose. I realized that when I’m not accomplishing something, I’m not sure who I am. I was having a conference-generated identity crisis.

My sense of self is dangerously close to my sense of role. I’m a writer, a speaker, a consultant, a father, a husband, a skier, etc. But who am I when I’m not actively being those things? Who am I’m without my accomplishments — past, present, or future?

Just me. Which, it turns out, was unsettling.

I don’t think I’m alone. It’s why, within a minute of meeting someone, we begin to define ourselves by our roles, our status, and our relationships to others. We think it’s because other people need that information to know us.

But standing alone at that party I realized I’d been fooling myself. Other people don’t need that information to know me. I need that information to know myself.

Once I understood the source of my discomfort, I resisted the urge to drop a name or tell people I had just given a talk or written a book or something else to identify a solid role for myself that would make me look and feel good.

Instead, I paid attention to what it felt like to be without any identity other than my presence. I noticed my desire to be noticed and my feelings of insecurity. But I also noticed my feeling of strength, and of trust in my observations and in myself. I began to relax and, once I did, I didn’t feel nearly as insecure.

Then something funny happened. People started to approach me.

Out of the blue, a woman walked over and introduced herself to me and we started talking. Then she waved a colleague over. They didn’t know me and weren’t looking for anything from me, nor I from them. We were just three people connecting. As soon as we parted, a man came over. Again, I introduced myself by name but not by role. Again, we had a great conversation and a nice, human connection.

I didn’t tell people that I’m a writer or that I run a consulting company or any other role-defining facts. I just met them as Peter. And they met me as themselves.

It took some getting used to, especially at a conference where we tend to define ourselves by our roles and people talk to each other while looking around to see if there’s someone more useful to talk to.

But it’s a mistake to launch in to your business plan when you meet someone new — even at a conference where the point is to peddle your business plan. People invest in you first, then your plan. So show them you first, then your plan.

That’s precisely why shedding our roles — at least initially — even at a conference and even if there is something we want from others, is such a good idea.

People will trust you if you trust yourself. And to trust yourself you have to step out from behind the curtain. You have to expose yourself, free of titles and status. When you allow people to see you — as impressive and vulnerable as you are — then they will trust you. Because they will know you.

So how, at a conference when you don’t know anyone, can you engage in a conversation without identifying your role? It’s not easy. You’ll be fighting against the tide. But try asking open-ended questions and try getting personal. Eventually you’ll find out more about your fellow conference-goers and they’ll find out more about you.

A conference is just a bunch of human beings bumping into other human beings. Most of whom feel awkward about it. Most of whom, more than anything, would love to be seen for who they are, not just the roles they represent. We can give that to each other.

It might be awkward at first. But I think it’s our best shot at having a meaningful experience in a situation that often leaves us feeling shallow. That’s clearly good for us. And it might just be good for business too.


  1. Pablo Pollard says:

    thank you for giving an example of what happens when you get curious about the ‘why’ behind how you are feeling as you move throughout the day (at a conference, at work, at home). it’s awesome to see this level of emotional intelligence brought into the business world. thank you.

  2. I thought I was the only one feeling awkward at conferences! Thanks so much not just for sharing your experiences but for providing the key to a shift in mindset. So simple, yet so very true. Thank you!

  3. Aman says:

    It seems unreal that a person who speaks for a living feeling shy and alone in conferences. I think this was a great article and I hope to see more of the same soon. Thank you.

  4. Raza Chevel says:

    As a conference producer it was a great insight to understand a ‘behind the curtain’ perspective.

    Extremely impressive!

  5. Marni says:

    Thank you for this article! I started teaching at a college six years ago and still struggle somewhat with the down time. That never gets me much sympathy, but when the classes ended and the stacks of marking were finally gone, I found myself feeling quite lost and depressed. The description of your experience made me realize that I’m not alone. It is finally getting easier to just accept that I can just ‘be’ and that no one is keeping score.

  6. Issabella says:

    “So how, at a conference when you don’t know anyone, can you engage in a conversation without identifying your role? It’s not easy. You’ll be fighting against the tide. But try asking open-ended questions and try getting personal. Eventually you’ll find out more about your fellow conference-goers and they’ll find out more about you.”

    I recently took a peer counseling training class, we discussed that open-ended questions are to give a sense of empowerment and to keep the conversation going. Though, from a Deaf perspective it’s not always that easy, many open-ended questions are extremely vague, beat around the bush or get lost in the midst of getting to know each other. I’m Deaf, I should know. I’m also extremely shy, and a trained cultural anthropologist, what do I do in a room full of folks I do not know, I watch, observe and smile. That smile, draws folks over to me and then I pray that I can understand everything they’re saying to me. With limited reminders of the fact that I cannot hear well or some things at all.

    We’re all shy in some way, there is no harm in that, we become more comfortable in discussing what we know vs what we do not know. At least from my personal experience it is that way.

  7. Sandy says:

    This is a great article, and I have read it over several times. Can someone share typical open-ended questions that would be considered appropriate when speaking to someone you have never met? I like the idea of getting personal with people I am trying to build a network with, without getting too personal.

  8. Dawn says:

    I wonder if it’s primarily introverted personalities that feel insecure and alone at conferences. I’ve found that having something to “do” gives me a natural way of connecting with people. As an introvert, I often find initiating conversations with strangers exhausting. While I agree that our objective is to be known for who we are rather than what we do, as an introvert I find it helpful to have a natural bridge to connect with people. Peter, I realize your key point was regarding staying with your feelings however could you comment on whether you think this insecurity at conferences is different for extraverted versus introverted personalities?

  9. Love this blog. You revealed how vulnerable it can feel to be in a networking setting and feel along, awkward, uncomfortable, ready to BOLT for the exit! This happens to me a lot and I’m a networking expert! I love how you solved it though. You became a person, not a celebrity or expert. You were just you. My colleague, Steve Harper, another networking expert talks about this alot; connecting to connect. Not to impress. I’m all for it. Also, what I often do in awkward situations is approach someone who looks lost, alone, scared as hell. We usually end up having a fantastic conversation. And I feel good about helping someone out. Can’t wait to read your book — I have so many ideas and To Do’s. Focus will be key for me.

  10. Lee says:

    I absolutely relate to this blog, as do many others, it seems. This explains why companies tend to send groups of people together to conferences…or perhaps it’s the people who choose to attend in groups! I am currently at home, taking time off to be with my family. It is so true what you’ve said about using one’s role as one’s identity, as I find it difficult to describe who I AM without saying what I do or did for a living. So thanks for making it OK to just be me…there’s nothing wrong with that!

  11. Shahid says:

    I agree with Dawn it must be different for an introvert vs extrovert, secondly if you tend to have a good sense of humour people connect more quickly. I use a bit sneaky trick of finding smokers and start connecting from smoker room onwards…..but I agree it’s a nightmare for introverts and shy people.

  12. Sam says:

    I have noticed the value of attending such events and meeting various people. One of the sad frustrations I have encountered is when attending events and going out of my way with sincere interest in getting to know people and being interested in investing with them, but unfortunately coming across few so far who say they don’t feel comfortable giving out their contact information to people they do not know well and say they may see me around which isn’t certain. Also, another one of the issues faced has been meeting people and creating good rapport and they going out of their way to do something and when you 1st send an email with a 2nd follow up email as best and helpful as possible they do not respond. What is advised to do in these situations and how best to avoid them and what to do when a good 2-way street has been created with someone for awhile and that other party stops responding or is not as helpful as before despite how much I try to go out of my way?

    Thank you very much for the article and advice!

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