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Don't Be a Wallflower at Your First Genealogy Conference!

Attending a genealogy conference can sometimes be intimidating. Often family historians arrive in pairs, they come with a friend, or they all know attendees from past years, from the online community or through genealogical societies. This can be extremely intimidating if you’re attending solo. It can be difficult for a newcomer to get comfortable at their first conference, and overcome their fears of being a wallflower because you don’t know anyone.

Of course the easiest way to make friends is to make small talk. Small talk can be painful and awkward for many. The goal of making small talk is to establish if you have some common ground with the other genealogists at the conference. Small talk is an opportunity to determine whether you want to continue to establish a relationship with this person beyond your first meeting, perhaps throughout the conference and beyond the conference weekend.

Some would ask why do I want to establish a relationship with other conference goers, I’m here for the lectures. Other conference attendees can be a valuable resource if given the chance. You’ve heard of collaborative genealogy. Networking at a genealogy conference is essentially collaborative genealogy. Networking is not just for conference goers who have genealogy businesses they wish to promote. Meeting other conference attendees is an opportunity to develop a relationship that may just advance your own genealogy knowledge and research. Or perhaps, you can help someone with their research.

That conference goer sitting beside you just may have written and published their family history book, something you’ve longed to do, maybe their starting or have an established genealogy business, maybe they live in area or belong to genealogical society that is key to your research. And just maybe they are a wonderfully genuine giving person that may come to be your new best friend.  You won’t know unless you take those initial steps and say hello.

Getting to Hello….And Beyond at Your Next Genealogy Conference


Here’s a few tips to consider when striking up small talk at your next conference.


  • Have a couple of questions prepared in advance so you can get to know your fellow attendees.
  • Communicate who you are, what you do, and what you have to offer, in a brief line or two.  Have a business card ready if genealogy is your business.
  • Match the depth of dialogue to the environment. There are many opportunities to strike up a conversation, waiting for a lecture to begin, sitting at a table having lunch, standing in line outside a lecture hall, or gathering at an evening social. However, each environment should indicate the depth of the dialogue you want to engage in.
  • When it comes to small talk, don't think you must say something strikingly intelligent each time you speak. Your words may be forgotten, but how you make people feel will be remembered.
  • Don’t monopolize the conversation, give your new friend the opportunity to talk , share ideas and ask questions. Learn to listen.
  • Don’t offer more information than your new conversation partner expects, wants or needs.
  • Watch for cues from your conversation partner. How are they responding to you? Are they engaged? Are they obviously looking for a someone to talk to? Are they listening to you?
  • The key to great conversation, relax, be yourself and let the conversation flow naturally. It very easy to do when you are engaged and genuinely interested in the conversation topic and the person with whom you are talking.
  • It's about your attitude. Don’t look at small talk as a dreaded requirement. Remind yourself that the person you are meeting could be a new found friend, a research opportunity or a potential client. Once you’ve challenged yourself to have that first conversation you’ll find your enthusiasm to embrace the small talk for the rest of the conference.


Questions to Break the Ice

1. What brings you to this genealogy conference?
This question can uncover mutual interests and lead to further discussion. They may be a fellow a attendee, a genealogy blogger, a professional genealogist or a vendor. Regardless their answer will open the door to finding mutual interests, perhaps same ethnicity, researching in similar area. May be they have a knowledge of genealogy you have yet to tap and would like to learn more about. It could lead to a long lasting mutual relationship.

2. What family history lines are you currently researching?
Of course you wouldn’t lead with this question, but it’s a great follow up question. Again you may just uncover some mutual interests.

3. How did you become a family historian?
Regardless of whether they are a hobbyist or a professional, every family historian has a story to tell about how they found their passion. It’s great way to learn more about a person and show genuine interest in their story.

4. Do you have any big family history projects you are currently working on?
Maybe their involved in making a book, or indexing, or creating a family video, or organizing a reunion. All great ways to learn about your new friend.

5. What keeps you busy when you’re not attending genealogy conferences?
This encourages conversation beyond genealogy. You’ll open the door for them to talk about other passions, their family etc. Perhaps you share mutual interests beyond genealogy which would openly expand your relationship with them.

Save these questions to a convenient area on your smartphone. The next time you’re at a genealogy conference, refresh yourself on the questions and jump in. And remember the person you are engaging in conversation probably feels like a wallflower as well!

And hey if you lucky enough to be one of those outgoing types, seek out the wallflowers and welcome them to the fold.

Did you have a great experience meeting fellow genealogists at a conference? Share your story in comments.

Not sure which genealogy conferences to attend this year. Conference Keepers has everything under one roof. 








9 comments:

  1. I went to my first conference alone and in another state. I was fine at the sessions, chatting a bit with the people I sat next to before sessions began. I was a bit intimidated when it came to the dinner. However the Ohio Genealogy Conference had given us name tags & mine had a sticker showing I was a first timer. While waiting to go in to dinner a group saw my sticker struck up a conversation with me and invited me to join their group. It was a wonderful dinner and I made new friends.

    So, if you are not a first timer, look out for others who may be & welcome them.

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  2. You simply never know who you might meet when you strike up a conversation. At the FGS conference in Birmingham last year, I was fortunate enough to meet one of the ladies who works in the library in Evansville, Indiana. We started talking about FGS 2013 in Ft. Wayne, and she invited me to stop in Evansville on my way to Ft. Wayne for a day or two and she would help me do some research in the library, and even offered to take me over to the cemetery so I could photograph my ancestors' gravesites!

    Genealogists are some of the most pleasant, helpful, and generous folks I know. And most of them won't bite your head off if you try to talk to them :)

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  3. Everyone has to be a first timer sometime. This is my first RootsTech but not my first conference and I am an Australian coming to the US. In one way I have it easy as my accent will be a potential talking point (as will my blogger beads). I will also probably have a koala mascot with me all talking points.

    Consider having your Genealogical Society badge or State Emblem on your bag or shirt as a conversation starter or indeed wear your Society shirt. I have seen people have bags made through the instant printers with their surnames of interest and one very colourful bag with the flags of their ancestral countries. The most important thing to remember is that 99.9% of people are friendly and share your addiction.

    Before you go have a look at the website and the plan of the centre so it doesn't feel as overwhelming when you get there. On your first day allow extra time as that is definitely the day you don't want to be stressed by arriving late for the talk you really wanted to hear. Don't be afraid to talk to people.

    With a little planning you will have fun and then you will be the person helping the new person the next time.

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  4. These are wise tips about conversations. Thanks! And I love the picture.

    The genealogists on Twitter are so friendly and collaborative, all the time, that I can just imagine the atmosphere at conferences! All the tweets and photos from conferences that cyber-friends have attended also show me that they love to have a good time while they're also learning from conference presentations and conversations. Sounds like much fun!

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  5. Thanks Colleen and Jenna for sharing your stories it helps newcomers to see what wonderful things can come from a little small talk.

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  6. Some great ideas Helen, thanks for sharing them here. I hope you have a fantastic time at Rootstech

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  7. This is a terrific article! The Jamboree website has a page for first-timers, and I'll add a link to this article from that page. Our page is here: http://www.scgsgenealogy.com/Jamboree/2013/GettingTheMost.htm

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  8. Thanks Paula really appreciate your comments and linking to it.

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  9. This is a very helpful article. I admit to being a wallflower and I regret it. I always get so much information and inspiration from the speakers but I know I could get so much more. Thanks.

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