Conference small talk – the definitive guide


Making small talk with someone who’s just given a talk, whether at a conference or at a colloquium or invited talk, can feel intimidating, especially if you’re a student or early in your academic career. But as someone who’s currently spending a lot of time on the opposite side of that divide, I’ve realized that when I’m a speaker, I really really want people to come up and talk to me. So here’s your pep talk, and some tips on what to say.

The key thing to realize is that most of the time, you know more about the speaker than they know about you, so you need to start the conversation and you get to pick what it’s about.

Even before the talk, the speaker’s name and abstract has been emailed around the department or is in the conference booklet, and after the talk you’ve had somewhere between 20 minutes and an hour to hear them talk about what they’re interested in. If it’s a course, maybe you’ve even had weeks. Maybe you’ve googled them, maybe you’ve read their articles, maybe they’re your academic hero, maybe you just stumbled into the talk but now you find you’re enjoying it, whatever. You know something about them that makes them interesting to you.

The speaker, on the other hand, might not even know the names of anyone in the audience at all (at a conference) or might know only their one or two host(s) (at an invited talk). Or even if they know half the audience, if you’re one of the people they don’t know, then have no particular reason to want to talk with you. And even if they do have a general desire to meet people in their audience (and they probably do), all they have for small talk options with these unknown people are very general questions that can be asked of any linguist, like the classic academic icebreaker “So, what do you work on?” and its relatives “So, are you a student?” and “So, where are you from?” (Note that in an academic context, this means “What university(s) are you affiliated with?” and not “Where did you grow up?”)

Protip: if you’re new to academic conferences and want to seem like a srs linguist, make sure you have an answer to “So, what do you work on?” It’s acceptable to say “[phenomenon] in [language]” as a short answer, but it’s better to have a 30 second summary that gives the other person something more to hook onto, like “I’m looking at constructions like [Example McExampleface] in [language]. You might expect people to say [this thing], but in fact they say [other thing].” This gives them a couple of places to ask follow-up questions from if they’re interested. If someone gives you a “[phenomenon] in [language]” type answer though, a good way to continue the conversation is to ask “So what would that look like?/Do you have an example?/What have you been finding?” 

“What do you work on?” is a perfectly acceptable academic icebreaker for standing around the reception desk / coffee table / buffet line, but if you’ve just seen someone’s talk you can’t ask them what they work on – they just told you! If you hover around silently long enough, they might ask you instead, but you run the risk of someone who does know how to talk with speakers starting a conversation first. Of course, if you’re not actually interested in the speaker, you can leave without chatting, but if you are, there are better options than hovering around silently! Here are some of them:

Unlike the question period, you don’t have to have a formal “question” about the particular talk in order to go up to the speaker and talk with them afterwards. So instead think about how to start a conversation that will be interesting and relevant for both you and the speaker. A good way to think about this of options is to think about why you came to the talk and what you got out of it:

  • You like a particular article they’ve written or other thing they’ve done. If you know this in advance, you have time to work out some specific comment(s) or question(s) about it.
  • You’re working on or thinking about working on something that’s related to something they’re doing.
  • You’d like to ask some specific advice. (Not “how do I become you” but “I’ve done X and Y towards Goal. What would you suggest I do next?” Try not to ask things that are readily googlable.)
  • You work in Other Framework or with Other Language and you’d like to talk about how their thing might work with the thing you work on.
  • You know of a related study or data that they might find relevant. (Don’t frame this as accusatory “why didn’t you cite this??”, rather as helpful “there’s a paper that might be useful for you”.)
  • They mentioned something in the talk that you thought was interesting or got confused about, and you’re wondering if they could tell you a bit more about it. Not “please re-explain your entire talk to me” but “I’m wondering about what you said on slide 17.″ (Especially if they said “I’m not going into this in detail, but feel free to ask me about it later.” Take them up on this!)
  • You have some acquaintanceship in common, such as you’re working with their former supervisor or someone they went to grad school with. (”I just wanted to say hi – I work with Profy McProferson.”) You’ll probably still need to follow that up with one of the above topics though in order to turn into a real conversation.

It may feel self-promotional to go up to a speaker and say that you work on a similar area, but it’s actually a great idea, as long as you start with a quick version and let them ask questions as interested, don’t just jump right into an extended description. People do talks partly as a shortcut to networking – you could have a bunch of individual conversations with a roomful of people to see who has common research interests, or you could just give a talk and let them self-identify to you after. (Giving talks is, counter-intuitively, a great idea for introverts and socially awkward people! You get a defined role and a bunch of people wanting to start conversations with you about stuff you’re interested in.)

For example, I always want to hear from people who are working on internet language or public outreach projects, but same goes if you’re talking with a speaker about your mutual interest in split ergativity or Bantu languages or whatever. You’ll want to tailor this to what kind of conference you’re at though. If you’re at a big sociophonetics conference, it’s less interesting to come up to a speaker and say “I, like everyone else here, am a sociophonetician” than if you’re at a small general invited talk.

Here’s some more general tips, some of which are courtesy of twitter:

  • Several people mentioned that it can be a good idea to prepare a couple of potential questions or comments, especially if you’re worried about sounding more like a fan than a srs professional.
  • That said, as someone who has now been on the receiving end of occasional fangirling, I find it endearing but also I don’t always know what to do with it. It’s super helpful if you can set us on the course of having an actual conversation, rather than putting me into the weird position of “why yes, I agree, I am awesome.” It’s always nice and safe to start with “I enjoyed your talk” but follow that up with something concrete.
  • You know your own interests and also mine! I only know mine – tell me which of your interests matches mine and we can have a conversation about that. (”I really liked your thing about X, because I work on Y, and I think a Z approach can be useful for both of us/what we have in common is W/I was wondering how you deal with This Part.”)
  • Social awkwardness doesn’t evaporate when someone becomes a famous professor. They don’t hate you. In fact, for most professors, mentoring emerging scholars who are interested in similar topics is one of the highlights of the job.
  • Remember that the speaker was once a student just like you, and can remember what it was like to feel intimidated. And the further removed someone is from being a student, the more students they have interacted with along the way. They’re not expecting you to know all the things already. But they can’t read your mind to know that you’re wishing you could talk with them. You have to take that initial step and then they can meet you partway.
  • You know the speaker’s name, but they likely don’t know yours, if you’re worrying about whether to talk with them (especially at colloquia/invited talks where people aren’t wearing nametags). Feel free to introduce yourself by name and/or introduce anyone else you know who joins the conversation.

And some advice about what happens once you’ve started that conversation:

  • Pay attention to your surroundings and the speaker’s level of interest. It’s great to engage a speaker in conversation but you’re probably not the only one who wants to do so.
  • If there are lots of people who want to talk to the person, keep your comments brief or try to convert things into a group conversation, not an extended monologue from you.
  • If it’s immediately after the speaker’s talk and they haven’t had time to get water/food/coffee/etc when such things are available, suggest walking to the appropriate location rather than trapping them in a corner without sustenance.
  • If you’re talking about your own research, don’t be self-deprecating about it (”Oh I’m working on X but it’s not nearly as cool as your thing”). Even if it’s not going so great right now, there must be some initial reason why you thought it was interesting enough to work on. Find that again.
  • If you’re seated next to each other at a dinner table, it’s appropriate to have a longer conversation than if you’re at a standing reception (or keeping the speaker from the reception!).
  • As with any conversation, keep an eye out for signs the other person is becoming bored or distracted – it’s better to leave the other person wishing you could have talked longer than to have them hunting for excuses to leave.
  • If the person gives you advice, take it! If you meet the person again in 6 months, you want to be able to say “I read that article you suggested and I have X question/it was super helpful/it wasn’t completely related but it did lead me to this other great article” not “oops I spent all this time getting advice from you and didn’t act on any of it.”

Anyone who’s been on either side of the speaker/audience divide want to chime in?

Author Bio: Gretchen McCulloch. Gretchen started blogging as a linguistics grad student at McGill University, but is now a full-time pop linguist, bridging the gap between linguistics and the general public.