How to conference: 2 Golden rules for networking


5 minute read

Despite how others perceive me, I am actually quite shy. When faced with a room full of people, all huddled together in their little groups, chatting and having fun, I often find myself frozen and insecure. Who should I approach? How do I join a conversation? Where do I start?

I bet I’m not the only one who feels like this.

Therefore, with conference season upon us, I thought I’d share some advice on how to network. In particular, I want to share the two golden rules that I follow at any networking event, and at conferences in particular: the PacMan Rule and the $n$-a-day Rule.

Rule 1: The PacMan Rule

So you’ve made it to the conference, and to the opening reception. You are holding a plate with some fancy bites that you just picked up from the buffet in one hand, and a drink in the other hand. You look around the room and see all these little groups of people, talking together, with their backs to the outside world.

How do you join a group? The only option, really, is to open your mouth and ask. That means having to interrupt a conversation, and you don’t want to do that. Hence, you hang around awkwardly in the vicinity of one or more of these groups, hoping to catch a lull in the conversation that you can use to squeeze in a quick “Hi, may I join you?” You have to be quite loud about it, also, since the room is rather noisy with all the chatter.

Not ideal.

Sure, people will likely let you join, but it would be great to avoid the awkwardness. Also, it can be quite off-putting to have to ask. If you have to ask to join a group, maybe that group is not the most welcoming anyway?

Here’s what I try to do to lower the threshold for other people to join the conversation: I apply the PacMan Rule.

I did not come up with it. I believe it was Eric Holscher who introduced it. The rule is simple:

When standing as a group of people, always leave room for 1 person to join your group.

To visualise it: stand in a PacMan formation. The people in the group form the PacMan circle, and the open spot is the open mouth.

As soon as someone joins the group, shuffle over to make room for one more. When the group gets too big, you can always split off with a few people and start a new, smaller group, in PacMan formation.

This makes it very easy for someone to join without having to interrupt the ongoing conversation. It is a non-verbal way of creating a welcoming and inclusive environment, and reduces the feeling of there being closed cliques that outsiders do not have access to.

Try it!

Rule 2: The $n$-a-day Rule

I do not know who came up with this, so if you do know, please tell me who to credit!

This rule is also about welcoming people. When you have been integrated in your community, you have likely made researcher friends. At this point, you find yourself looking forward to conferences as an opportunity to catch up with them.

However, fresh graduate students, or even established researchers joining a new field, do not have such a friend group yet. They need to network to find one, but it can be quite daunting to insert yourself into a new community if there are already these established cliques of friends.

The $n$-a-day Rule is designed to encourage both new people and established researchers to network. The rule is as follows:

If this is your $n$ th time attending conference X, make sure to introduce yourself to to at least $n$ new people, on each day of the conference.

As a young researcher, you’ll probably have an easy time doing this. If you’re attending IJCAI for the first time, it should not be too hard to find at least one person you haven’t met yet on each day.

As an established researcher, you will have to make a conscious effort to welcome the newbies. Again, at IJCAI this probably won’t be too hard. During smaller, more specialised conferences, though, you may have to introduce yourself to every single new person who is there, to make your quota.

I think that’s good. After all, at the specialised conferences, we are really together with our community, with the people who we will work with for maybe the rest of our careers. Hence, it’s extra important to make an effort to foster an inclusive environment that welcomes new members to the community.

Try it!

If you are attending any networking events this summer, please try applying these rules. Let me know how it goes?

Would you change anything about them? Would you add any new rules? Do you apply networking rules that are different from mine?

Let me know! I’d love to get better at networking, and could use all the help I can get!