The 2016 AIS ICT Leadership Conference starts today in Canberra and continues tomorrow and Friday. I had the privilege of attending this event three times previously (once in the Hunter Valley, and twice in Canberra) but I haven’t attended the last two due to the fact I no longer work in a school. The openness and collaboration amongst IT staff from “competing” schools is one of the things I miss most about working in education and the annual conference is where I saw that collaboration most intensely. As I thought about how much I enjoyed the conferences I also got to thinking about how much I struggled socially at those same conferences. So today’s post contains some tips on how to get more out of the conference, even if your social skills are as bad as mine.

Tip 1: Show Up

Meeting new people can be hard, especially for introverts (which includes the majority of IT people). My preference was to try to avoid awkward situations and mind my own business but at the same time I really wanted to get to know the people I respected on the MITIE forums better. Hiding in my hotel room or going for a walk on my own was always more comfortable than mingling during breaks, meals and events, but mingling is a much better way of getting to know people than stalking them on the forums. So show up!

Tip 2: Approach Someone

If you’re anything like me, once you’ve shown up somewhere you’ll immediately start second guessing yourself and feeling like a loser for standing on your own, not having as much fun as everyone else or generally being awkward. Don’t leave and don’t bury your face in your phone! Look for someone else standing on their own, take a deep breath and walk up to them. It feels awkward but they’ll most likely be grateful you took the first step.

Tip 3: Use Their Name a Few Times

Once you’ve said hello to the person (you did remember to smile and look them in the eye as you shook hands didn’t you?) it’s time to exchange small talk. As you’re asking the usual questions try to sprinkle the other person’s name in. It will help you remember it and it will help them feel valued and important.

  • “What school are you from?” could become “So Tim, what school are you from?”
  • “How big is it?” could be changed to “How many students are there at Awesome College Tim?”
  • “How are you enjoying the conference?” can become “What’s your favourite thing about the conference so far Tim?”

Tip 4: Ask a Few Open Ended Questions

After the small talk, an awkward silence will probably descend. Once again you’ll start second guessing yourself and looking for exits. This is where you need to pull out the big guns and ask an open ended question, preferably one that isn’t about the conference.

I’m no conversational wizard but some possible questions to try include:

  • What’s your earliest memory of using computers?
  • What led you into working in technology?
  • What do you like to do when you aren’t at work?
  • What’s the best book you’ve ever read?

Tip 5: Actively Listen

Minds have a tendency to wander, so as the other person is talking, try to focus on what they are saying. The idea behind asking open ended questions isn’t to quiz them but to give them a chance to talk about something they’re interested in with the goal of finding some common ground or mutual interests.

As you listen, you’ll probably think of things to say and questions to ask. Instead of chipping in your two cents worth any time they stop talking, try to ask questions. Questions generally do a better job of keeping the conversation flowing.

Tip 6: Expand

If you don’t hit it off and the conversation starts dragging, don’t run for the hills yet. Look for another single, pair or trio and try to approach them. The person that your with probably wants to run for the hills too but if you’re honest and ask them to come with you as a favour they probably won’t (be able to) say no. They may even thank you later! Try something along the lines of “I’d like to keep meeting people but I’m not very good at it. Would you be happy to come and chat to those people over there with me?”

Tip 7: Strategic Retreat

This socialising stuff can be exhausting so don’t overdo it on the first day. Once you’ve spent a while outside your comfort zone you’ll probably need some time to yourself. Head somewhere quiet and jot down some notes about the people you’ve been speaking to. Write down names and any details you learned. Writing it down will help you recall it later and allow you to enjoy good follow up conversations.

Tip 8: Build on the Foundations

The next time you see someone (the next day at breakfast, in a session or at the dinner) say hello to them by name. If it’s appropriate, ask them a question about something they told you previously. This will reinforce your memories and show them that you were listening to them. Questions could include:

  • Are you missing your kids/pets/significant other?
  • Have you had any emergency calls from Awesome College?
  • Did you get a chance to ask the speaker about that point that didn’t make sense?

Tip 9: Follow Up

Once you’re back at work and in the swing of things, get in touch with a few people you spoke to. You may even want to schedule one or two additional follow ups in your calendar for a few months down the track so you don’t forget to keep in touch.

You could contact them via email, Twitter, Facebook or on MITIE. Keep it short but friendly with a maximum of one question:

  • Hey Tim, it was nice meeting you at the conference. Hope you’re settling back into Awesome College. Matt
  • Hi Tim, we just had a meeting with SuperEduCo. Are you still using them for your LMS?
  • Are you going to the Term 3 MITIE day next week?

Tip 10: Rinse and Repeat

Meeting new people never feels comfortable to me but I have found that I get better at it when I practise. If you repeat these steps you’ll get better at meeting new people. You’ll also find you there are more and more people at these events that you already know.

I trust everyone at #AISIT16 has a great conference and I hope to be able to join you there in future years!