How to work a conference, even before it starts

You know the feeling. You sign up for a conference, scan the list of panels and keynotes trying to find out which you'll go to, which you'll snooze through, and when you'll escape for some alone time or a workout.

But how often do you have a strategy for meeting the few people you are really hoping to meet? You know, the ones who have a crowd of people surrounding them and then zip off for a pre-arranged coffee date with some other person who looks important.

Basically, how do you become the kind of person who has those pre-arranged coffee dates (or at least a good shot at some spontaneous ones) with the interesting people at conferences.

Here's a few ideas:

Spend some time online. Visit the conference's website and start studying the speaker list. If the conference is using a social networking tool like Crowdvine to encourage people to meet one another, take the time to fill out your profile and see who else is attending. Find out the conference's Twitter hashtag and start checking Twitter to see if anyone is talking about it. If you're active on LinkedIn or Facebook, mention that you're going to the conference in your status update.

Email people in advance. Once you discover whom you want to meet or friends you want to meet up with, email them to see if you can set up some for a coffee meeting. Sarah Milstein, who co-wrote The Twitter Book, is my go-to person on conferences since she has run a lot of them. Her advice is to keep it brief: "I saw that you're attending the X conference. I am, too, and as the new Director of Blah at Blah, I'd welcome a chance to meet and discuss Y ['our mutual interest in Z' or 'your experience w/A']. If there's a time that's particularly good for you, let me know. Otherwise, I'll simply keep an eye out for you." She also recommends including a link to your site, an online profile or something else with your professional background -- and if one or both of those includes a picture of you, all the better.

Practice introducing yourself. Sometimes it's hard to meet the people you want to meet because you're unsure of how to introduce yourself. This is especially true if you're between jobs or spending time with people in an industry you want to move into but are not yet established in. If you're in this situation, practice a few different opening lines until you land on something that feels comfortable. And if you're not yet working in the industry or not in a job you're proud of, figure out something you can mention that shows off your interests -- like that volunteer position at your college alumni association where you just organized a panel on clean energy.

Start good conversations. Some of the best meetings at conferences happen serendipitously, without any advance planning. So make sure you're open to chance meetings and comfortable starting up conversations with strangers. Gretchen Rubin, whom I can't seem to go a day without linking to, gives these excellent tips for making conversation with a stranger.

Don't forget the other person. You could have the snappiest elevator pitch in the world but if you don't quickly convey why someone else will want to meet you, then you're not going to have good conversations. Chris Brogan, the author of Trust Agents and a popular speaker on social networking, is one of those guys who has a line of people waiting to talk to him every time he speaks. What makes him warm up to a stranger in one of those crowds? Confidence. Brevity. And a strong finish. (Explained in more detail here.) When I asked him about this in a phone call, he said that relevance really matters: "Try to make sure that we really do have something in common. You may be passionate about something, but if it has nothing to do with what I do, it's not the right match. I don't write about politics and can't really understand why someone would come up to me and want to start talking about Iran."

I'd like to hear your ideas. What works for you when trying to meeting people at conferences?