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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.

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