Approaching People at Conferences With Confidence

Theo van der Zee | September 16, 2013 | Reading time: 7 min

pool billiardsConferences are a great place for networking. However, connecting to people you don’t know yet can be a challenge. For most people it triggers an innate fear, ranging from mild anxiety to a total body freeze. This anxiety prevents many great connection opportunities and potentially mutually beneficial relationships from forming. Yet, approaching people at conferences is not a scary as you might think, if you have the right tools. In this article I offer my insights on how to make these valuable connections at conferences. I will explain to you how by observing others, you can learn to tell whether or not they want to connect to you.

Who should I approach?

Some people are approached more easily than others. These easier targets are interesting because connecting with them might help you feel more comfortable before approaching more difficult ones. I will therefore point those easier targets out first.

People in a queue

“Such type of small talk allows you to connect to your target without imposing any burden on them.”Easy targets to approach at a conference are people who are standing in a queue. These queuing targets are fairly easy to engage in conversation because they aren’t likely to be involved in any conversations at that moment and are the environment offers a lot of icebreakers. Striking up a conversation is easy when queuing for lunch, at a coffee machine, the water cooler or the bar at the party held after the conference. Subjects particularly suited for such conversation are your like or dislike of any of the food or drinks or your thoughts on the last presentation. Such type of small talk allows you to connect to your target without imposing any burden on them. It shows them that you aren’t a threat as well as that it enables you to study the body language signals they show in response to your approach. These cues offer useful information for understanding whether your target is interested in any further interaction with you.

People who are alone

People who are standing by themselves also make easy targets. Most likely, on of the following two scenarios will apply to somebody who is sitting or standing alone. Either they are too hesitant to approach others, or they are currently busy doing something else. By looking at their posture, you should be able to discern whether it’s the former or the latter. People standing alone, but not looking to engage in contact with you or others are often identified by fairly specific body language in which they signal you to keep your distance. They tend to be protecting their upper body with their arms (by crossing them, holding a cup of coffee with two hands, etc.), tapping vigorously at their smartphone or are otherwise focussed on an activity. On the other hand, people who are also hesitant but open to talk to others probably won’t show the signs described above. Instead, they will probably have their arms uncrossed and a neutral or smiling facial expression. Furthermore, they don’t seem to be engaged in any activity in particular. People who are showing of these signs will likely appreciate it when you approach them.

People involved in a group activity

Lastly, easy targets to approach are people whom are involved in a group activity. At the end of a conference often group activities such as a game of pool billiards or darts are played by groups of conference attendees. Approaching these people is often easier than approaching people during the actual conference, mostly because people tend to switch their mindset from business to pleasure after the sessions have ended. If you want to approach people involved in such a group activity, you could walk up to the group and kindly request if you can join in on the activity. Approaching people in this way allows you to meet several new people at once, without having to approach these people one at a time. The more informal atmosphere of the activities following the conference (and notably the sponsored alcoholic beverages that are often available) will also aid you in connecting with these new people beyond the “What do you do for a living?” level of a relationship.

Everyone else

If none of the people listed above are available or desired as a target, the more difficult targets remain as your options for an approach. Most likely these people are already interacting with other persons at the moment. In order to successfully approach people that are already engaging with others, you should pay close attention to their body language.

Will they welcome my approach?

So, you’ve mentally selected the person or group of people that you want to approach, but how can you know if the desire to connect is mutual? How can you tell the difference between whether your target(s) are actually enjoying you company or are merely politely nodding along with what you’re saying? The way their group is configured and the signalling of their body language can reveal a lot about these matters.

Group configuration

The first thing worth paying attention to is how a group is configured, because this can provide you with valuable information on how the individual members of the group relate to each other. Both the distance between the members of the group and the amount of touching that can be observed are relevant cues.

Distance and touching

If people are standing close to each other, this signals they probably know each other well. As Edward Hall has shown in his research on proxemics, people standing within less than 1.2 meter (4 feet) of each other are standing at a ‘Personal distance’, which is reserved for interactions among good friends or family members. When people are touching frequently, then they probably know each other fairly well. Do note that cross-cultural differences apply, with persons from certain cultures or regions being more likely to touch each other than people from other cultures or regions.

Optimal characteristics

Look out for a group of people that is standing at approximately 1.2 – 2.1 meters (4 to 7 feet) from each other, with limited amount of touching going on. Members of these groups are unlikely to know each other very well, and therefore are more like to allow strangers to enter their conversation. An added benefit of such a group would be that their conversations probably involve less jargon and inside jokes, which would allow you to join in on the conversation more easily.

Is anyone leaving?

intends to leaveWhen you’re observing a group, you should also keep an eye out for the position of the feet of the group members. The orientation of their feet is a great tell of their intention towards the group. People who intend to leave a group will have either one or even both of their feet facing away from their conversation partner. Such people are excellent targets to approach because they’ve already nonverbally shown their intent to leave the conversation they’re currently involved in.

Find an open spot

In that case that four people stand in a group, and the space between them is symmetric, that is a signal that they are a closed group, which is not necessarily open for new people. The same applies to a group of three that is standing in an isosceles triangle formation, or two people that are facing each other as well as their feet directly while talking. On the other hand, when you see three people standing around a round table, this is a tell that these people are opening up, and therefore are more open to new people in their group. Furthermore your approach to such a group is perceived as more smoothly, because the group doesn’t have to reconfigure itself in order to allow you to join their conversation.

Will you come join us?

Cues known as approach tells are signals that people are unconsciously sending when they want to be approached by others. A great way to test whether or not a group is welcoming your approach is by walking casually past that group. In passing you should try to make eye contact with a member of the group. If eye contact is established, smile briefly and observe whether the target smiles back in return. If you receive a smile in return, then that smile can be considered as an approach tell, which allows you to approach the group. If however the smile isn’t returned, you should casually stroll along as if that was your intention in the first place. By using this technique you can maximize your chances of making a successful approach, and avoid any awkward moments you might experience upon trying to join a group in which your presence apparently isn’t desired.

Whom to make eye contact with?

With regard to the person you should make eye contact with, it’s probably best to go for the alpha male or female of the group. It works in such a way that if you get accepted by the alpha, this will automatically validate your status to the other members of the group, thereby saving you the effort needed to convince each of them of your value. You can spot the alpha male or female of the group by looking out for signs of dominance. These signs include the pointing of the group members’ feet (which will usually be pointed at the most dominant group member) and body posture (the alpha male or female usually has a more relaxed body posture and looks people in the eyes when speaking to them). A more comprehensive list of alpha male body language is available on the Iron Man Magazine website.

Upper body turn

“When you approach someone they will often have to turn their body in order to greet or acknowledge you.”When you approach someone they will often have to turn their body in order to greet or acknowledge you. This movement provides you with a valuable cue on whether or not this person is likely to welcome you in the group. During the turning of their body, take good notice of whether or not they are turning their entire body, or just their torso instead (with their feet remaining in place). While their upper body turn is required in order to greet you, they won’t have to move their feet in order to do so. When the feet remain in place, this provides a valuable clue that they currently don’t have any intentions of ‘moving’, or more specifically to let you in on their conversation.

Whom should I address?

Once you are accepted in to a group, you’re faced with your next dilemma: whom should you address first?

The gatekeeper

The person that invited you into the group should be the prime candidate in the matter of whom to talk to first. After all, this person was the one who signaled that you were welcome to join the group, and is therefore interested in what you have to say.

The alpha male or female

If you’ve discovered which person the alpha male or female in this group is, you should try address him or her next. This person will not only be unconsciously pleased that you’ve recognized their dominance, but their acceptance of you will also increase your chances of the likelihood of other members of that group interacting with you. Another reason why you should address the alpha of the group is that this might be somebody of value to your professional network.

What should I say?

After you’re allowed into the group and figured out who to address first, the final thing to do is decide what you’re going to say.

Previous talk, next talk

Especially in single-track conferences the talks are a great conversation starter. Try asking the group what they thought of the previous presentation, or which presentation they intend to visit next. Try not to voice your own opinion too quickly in order to gain some idiosyncrasy credit in the group first.

Before you joined

If the conversation happens to somehow fall flat after you join in, try asking the group members what they were discussing before you joined in. Alternatively you might inquire into how the members of group know each other. Displaying a calm and open body posture will quickly ease the group down, because such gestures show them you aren’t a threat to them. The conversation will very likely pick up again quickly after posing the questions outlined above.

Conference items

Notice group members that are wearing any special conference items such as t-shirts, sunglasses or custom badges. These items make great conversation starters. For example you might ask them where they got those items, or whether the company that hands them out always provides attendees with such unique items.


The steps in this blog offer a description of how to judge the body language of strangers at conferences in order for you to know if you can approach them or not. This helps you with a minimal effort to make the connections that you want to and enlarge your professional network. I have shown you several types of people that can most easily be approached, how to recognize body language signals that show you whether or not a group will welcome your approach, which person you should address first after being allowed into a group and finally what topics to discuss with them.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do you know of other body language signs related to approaching people in a professional context? Please share them with me.

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Theo van der Zee Hi, I'm Theo van der Zee and I enjoy analyzing human behavior.

CRO expert, MSc in psychology, web developer, trainer, jQuery, wireframing, GAIQ & Optimizely platform certified.

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