How to Make the Most of Attending a Conference Solo

Attending a conference alone can be a daunting prospect. Without the safety net of colleagues or friends, it‘s easy to feel awkward or anxious about the experience. But going solo to a conference also offers incredible opportunities for learning, growth, and expanding your professional network.

In fact, a recent study found that people who attend conferences alone are more likely to make new connections and have meaningful conversations than those who stick with familiar faces. By embracing the chance to step outside your comfort zone, you open yourself up to new ideas, diverse perspectives, and serendipitous encounters that can shape your career.

As a self-described introvert who‘s attended my fair share of conferences alone, I‘ve picked up a few strategies along the way to ease the awkwardness and make the most of the experience. Here are my top tips for before, during, and after the conference to set yourself up for solo success.

Before the Conference

1. Set intentions and goals

What do you hope to gain from this conference? Is your priority to deepen your knowledge in a particular area, connect with potential mentors, or scope out new business opportunities? Get clear on your objectives beforehand and use them to guide your decision-making at the event.

I find it helpful to set a few specific, achievable goals, such as:

  • Attend 3 sessions on [topic] and identify 2 key takeaways from each
  • Introduce myself to 5 new people each day
  • Invite 3 fellow attendees to have a follow-up call or coffee chat
  • Hand out 20 business cards

Having these concrete benchmarks makes networking feel more purposeful and less intimidating. It also helps you stay focused and avoid getting overwhelmed by all the options.

2. Do your homework

Most conferences release the agenda, speaker lineup and attendee list in advance. Take advantage of this to strategize which sessions, events and people you want to prioritize. Follow the conference hashtag on social media to see who else is attending and sharing insights. If you have mutual connections with any speakers or fellow attendees, reach out and ask for an introduction before the event.

I also recommend setting up a system to capture your notes, ideas and observations throughout the conference. Whether it‘s a dedicated notebook, an app like Evernote, or voice memos on your phone, having a centralized place to jot things down will help you retain and apply what you learn.

3. Practice your elevator pitch

Prepare a concise way to introduce yourself and what you do. Think about the key points you want to get across in 30 seconds or less. This isn‘t the time for a verbatim script, but rather a flexible framework you can adapt based on the conversation.

The most engaging elevator pitches focus more on the benefits you provide than a laundry list of your credentials. Highlight the problems you solve, the results you achieve, or the mission that drives your work. And don‘t be afraid to inject some personality! Mentioning a unique hobby or sharing a humorous anecdote can make you more memorable and relatable.

For example, instead of rattling off my job title and company, I might say something like: "I help purpose-driven organizations tell their story and expand their impact through digital marketing. When I‘m not geeking out over analytics, you can usually find me exploring local hiking trails or trying to perfect my homemade pizza recipe. I‘m excited to be here and learn from other creative minds. What brings you to the conference?"

During the Conference

4. Embrace the awkward

Let‘s face it: walking into a room full of strangers and striking up conversations can feel really uncomfortable, especially if you‘re introverted or struggle with social anxiety. Know that you‘re not alone in feeling awkward, and try to reframe it as a chance to practice stepping outside your comfort zone.

One study found that 91% of people at networking events experience some degree of anxiety. So when you walk up to someone and introduce yourself, odds are they‘ll be relieved you made the first move!

I like to set myself a mini challenge, like talking to 3 new people before lunch or asking a question in the Q&A portion of a session. Gamifying the experience takes some of the pressure off and makes it feel more like a scavenger hunt than a chore.

5. Ask questions and be curious

One of the best ways to take the focus off your nerves is to get the other person talking. Ask open-ended questions that invite them to share their experiences, opinions or advice.

Some of my go-to conversation starters:

  • What inspired you to attend this conference?
  • Which session have you enjoyed the most so far?
  • How does the topic of [X] relate to the work you do?
  • If you could have lunch with any of the speakers, who would it be and why?
  • What‘s the best book you‘ve read or podcast you‘ve listened to lately on [industry topic]?

Listen attentively and follow up with relevant questions or anecdotes of your own. Not only will you learn a ton, but you‘ll also make the other person feel valued and heard, laying the foundation for a genuine connection.

6. Volunteer or be a session leader

Taking on a specific role at the conference gives you an instant sense of purpose and makes it easier to approach people. You could volunteer to help with registration, moderate a panel, or facilitate a breakout discussion. Many conferences have opportunities for attendees to get involved and share their expertise.

For example, at a recent design conference I attended alone, I signed up to lead a lunchtime roundtable on inclusive design. Having that leadership role gave me a natural reason to introduce myself to people and invite them to join the conversation. Plus, it positioned me as a knowledgeable resource on the topic, which led to great follow-up discussions afterwards.

7. Take breaks and practice self-care

Conferences can be mentally and physically exhausting, especially when you‘re flying solo. It‘s okay to pace yourself and take breaks when you need them.

If you‘re feeling overwhelmed in the middle of a networking event, give yourself permission to step outside for a few minutes of fresh air or silence. Taking a walk around the block or doing some stretches can calm your nervous system and help you refocus.

Make sure to stay hydrated, eat nourishing meals, and prioritize sleep, even if that means skipping a late-night event or two. Pack comfortable shoes and clothing you feel confident in. When your basic needs are met, you‘ll have more energy and resilience to be fully present.

8. Connect with other solo attendees

The great thing about going to a conference alone is that you‘re not the only one doing it! Keep an eye out for other people who seem to be there by themselves and introduce yourself. Chances are they‘ll be grateful you broke the ice and eager to compare notes on the experience.

I‘ve found that the best places to strike up conversations with other solo attendees are in line for coffee, at communal lunch tables, or in the front row before a session starts. Even if you don‘t end up becoming long-term friends, it‘s comforting to have a few familiar faces to chat with throughout the event.

After the Conference

9. Follow up within 24-48 hours

With all the stimulation and sleep deprivation of a conference, it‘s easy for new connections to slip through the cracks once you‘re back to reality. That‘s why it‘s crucial to follow up with people as soon as possible, while the context of your conversation is still fresh.

Within a day or two of the conference ending, go through the business cards you collected and reach out to the people you want to stay in touch with. Connect on LinkedIn and send them a personalized note referencing something specific you talked about.

If there was potential for a deeper collaboration or friendship, suggest a concrete next step, like scheduling a video call or meeting up for coffee if you live in the same area. The key is to strike while the iron is hot and keep the momentum going.

10. Reflect and integrate your learnings

Take time to review your notes, sort through the resources you collected, and reflect on your overall experience. What were your top takeaways and aha moments? Did you gain a new perspective on a particular topic? How will you apply what you learned to your work or life?

I like to synthesize my learnings into a list of action items, whether it‘s a new tool I want to try out, a book I want to read, or an idea I want to pitch to my team. I also set aside time in my calendar to implement these ideas so they don‘t just fade into the background once I‘m back in the daily grind.

Another way to reinforce your learnings is to share them with others. Write a blog post recapping your experience, host a lunch and learn for your colleagues, or post your key takeaways on social media. Teaching others is one of the best ways to solidify new knowledge, and it positions you as a proactive leader in your field.

11. Stay connected to the conference community

Most conferences have active online communities that keep the conversation going year-round. Join the conference LinkedIn group, Slack channel or Facebook page to stay up to date on industry news and connect with other attendees.

Many events also offer attendee directories or networking apps that make it easy to find and message people you met. Take advantage of these tools to nurture the relationships you started and expand your professional circle. You never know when one of those connections might lead to a new opportunity or collaboration down the road.

Attending a conference solo can be intimidating, but it‘s also an incredible opportunity for growth, learning and expanding your horizons. With a little preparation and a lot of courage, you can turn that awkwardness into an advantage and come away with new insights, relationships and confidence. So next time you have the chance to be a conference party of one, seize it. Your future self (and your career) will thank you.