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How to Schmooze at OSCON

by Robert Bernier

schmooze: to talk idly or casually in a friendly way.

Almost everybody assumes that conferences are solely for attending lectures and increasing your knowledge on a particular topic; knowledge is power. However, conferences are much more than that; I go to stir the pot, make connections, cause decisions and commitments to be made that will generate long-term benefits--it's whom you know that counts.

This article is a how-to with a twist of lemon; instead of solving one of those really neat technical puzzles that you're so used to reading, I'm going to show how you can meet and talk with absolutely anybody at OSCON so you can come away with more than just the warm, fuzzy feeling you have after the chance meeting of a celebrity.

Profiling the Schmoozer

When it comes to approaching strangers, the schmoozer is as fearless and gregarious as they come. He is always on the move; he quite literally never stays put in one spot. He can cover a keynote speech, a BOF, and a tutorial, and work an exhibition booth, all in the space of a few hours. The schmoozer goes to parties and socials and plies his trade in such unusual places as the elevator or a hotel hallway. The schmoozer constantly scans crowds looking for worthy people to speak with. He looks for the technically adept and zeros in on people who love to gab about what they do well. He is attracted to large crowds of energetic people. He frequents those locations and times where conference participants are themselves at rest or relaxing such as breaks between sessions or, more commonly, visits to the exhibition hall. Although the best time is in the morning, when everybody is fresh, the schmoozer is a 24-hour creature of hustle and bustle

The Schmoozer Prepares for OSCON

Phase 1: research

The first order of business is to research OSCON and identify events of interest. Start by going to the OSCON site, and read up on everything, including keynotes, sessions, tutorials, and BOFs. Review the events and identify the speakers and their subjects. You'll learn a lot by reviewing the comments and blogs from earlier conferences. Another good source of information is the OSCON newsletter.

It's good to gravitate toward those events that pique your interest, but remember, the schmoozer's goal is to connect with the people who go to those events too.

Identify speakers and individuals of singular achievement. Go to their web sites to learn more about them. A vanity search on Google can yield illuminating information about these people, too.

Except for the celebrities, it's almost impossible to decide beforehand which specific people you want to meet. You should instead identify the kind of people you want to meet. For example, if you're an open source developer, meet your own peer group of developers, including those from other, similar projects. Perhaps a PostgreSQL developer should hobnob with MySQL people.

Phase 2: introspection

It's important that you do an inventory of your own qualities and intentions. Ask yourself:

  • Who and what are you?
  • What's your driving reason, interest, or passion for going to OSCON?
  • Are you going as a participant?
  • Are you a moderator or speaker?
  • Are you running a booth in the exhibition hall?
  • Are you going in the capacity of one or more of the above?

Reflect on how you will represent yourself at the conference. It may sound stupid, but you should stand in front of a mirror and rehearse how you will introduce yourself to people. Develop more than one way of introduction, because you will be meeting people with a range of expertise, ability, personality, and prior history with you. The secret to a good first meeting is to be comfortable with yourself. People respect those who respect themselves.

The Schmoozer at OSCON

Tour the conference and exhibition floors before you start working so that you understand the layout. Identify the local watering holes and the locations of the snack and coffee services. Visit the different conference halls to understand how people will flow in and out of the various venues. Finally, find out where the parties will be.

One of the first and best things you can do is to introduce yourself to the organizers. A simple hello and glad-that-I'm-here type of introduction suffices. Because these people move at Mach 1, you're doing them a favor by keeping the introductions short and sweet. What you want to do is simply plant the knowledge of your existence in the back of their head. As a rule, organizers appreciate people who can make connections because it enhances the conference experience for all the participants. Doing a good job of schmoozing will get you noticed and earn you dividends down the road.

Effective schmoozing isn't about shaking hands with your idol, but rather the ability to introduce yourself to an individual and come away with a commitment. A seasoned schmoozer can identify a person of interest and make first contact within a matter of seconds. Golden opportunities happen more often than you think. The trick is recognizing them as they occur.

The schmoozer can act in one of three ways with a person of interest:

  1. The schmoozer can forward his own personal agenda.

    Depending on his status--the greater it is, the smaller the margin of error--you will have about 20 seconds to make your introduction and pitch. Always start out by introducing yourself with your business card, your name, and a firm but brief handshake. During this time, most of the talking is from you. If you've made a good impression and there's genuine interest on his part, you will have an additional two minutes. In that case, the conversation is more balanced: half of the conversation will be from you, and half from him. Don't let the conversation go on for more than five minutes unless he wants to. However the conversation progresses, be sincere and brief when you thank him for his time, and don't forget to get his business card!

  2. The schmoozer can identify the person of interest and offer to support his agenda.

    Offering to help him holds the promise of an opportunity for you later on. This approach is contingent on a number of issues, such as your knowledge of his agenda and the impression you give him of your own competency and skills. Again, be brief and to the point. The same rule of 20 seconds and two minutes still holds in this case. This scenario carries more risk, but it can yield great reward because you're giving him something he needs. Even if you fail, you still have a good chance of making a favorable impression because he knows you have tried.

  3. The schmoozer introduces himself.

    There will be times that you will want to meet somebody for no reason other than ordinary desire. Maybe you have a gut instinct, or maybe you're just a fan. In any case, don't pretend with trumped-up stories. Just tell him to his face what you feel, and say it sincerely, but do it in 20 seconds only. Sometimes this will lead to something else. Remember, after this first meeting, there's always a next time.

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