The Worst Thing about the APRA Conference

Next week, 1,000+ of the smartest professionals in the fundraising industry will convene in New Orleans for the 2015 APRA International Conference.

I love this conference. It is hands-down the best professional development opportunity for anyone working in the Prospect Development field. If you do anything with Prospect Research, Relationship Management, or Fundraising Analytics, you’d be crazy to miss this event. This is especially true if you are new to the field – the New Researchers’ Symposium is simply fantastic. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’m co-chairing the New Researchers’ Symposium… so please forgive the temporary immodesty…)

All of this said, there is one thing that I dread about conferences: small talk.

Every couple of weeks I have a conversation with the guy who lives across the street from me, wherein we discuss recent weather or local sports teams, about which I must feign interest. This is like the third circle of hell for me. Thankfully, the APRA conference is a place where I can usually engage in more “big talk.” It’s relatively easy to dive in to any work-related topic and have a really meaningful conversation with someone I just met.

Knowing what I know about those of you who will be at the APRA conference, I’m fairly confident saying many of you are very much like me in this regard: pretty classic introverts* who would rather not talk about meaningless garbage with a bunch of strangers, but who can be quite happy doing a deep dive on a topic you’re interested in.

The hard part about this is getting the conversation started. I’m still mostly terrified of striking up conversations with people I don’t actually know, but I’ve accumulated a list of questions I like to use to get the other person talking. I thought I’d share these with ya’ll in case you find them helpful too.

First, the basics: cliché questions

Nothing wrong with using these, although they are super unimaginative. You may get into a decent conversation eventually, but it might take a bit before you get to anything especially interesting.

  • Where do you work?
  • How long have you been in that role?
  • How did you get started in the field?
  • Which other conferences have you attended?

Let’s move to the next level.

These questions are slightly more interesting, and may open up a respectable conversation. They’re still pretty standard. (They maybe don’t even warrant inclusion in a blog post about how to make small talk better.)

  • What are your favorite resources?**
  • What presentations have you attended so far? How were they?
  • What are you looking forward to learning at the conference?
  • Who is the best speaker you’ve seen, at this conference or at another conference?***
  • What’s your favorite prospect research book?

Now let’s go to eleven.

No risk, no reward. These questions can be helpful in turning the conversation on its head, although you may be regarded as a weirdo if you ask them. (All the more reason to do so, in my book!)

  • What’s your favorite palindrome?****
  • If you could change one thing about this whole conference, what would it be?
  • We’re going to make a movie about this conference. Which celebrities should play whom?*****
  • If APRA had a members-only handshake, what would it be?
  • You can either fly, or you can be invisible. Which superpower do you choose and why?****** How would you use this superpower in your job?
  • If, when you died, you were required to have your body preserved in some fashion (instead of burying [six feet under, at sea, or otherwise] or cremating) what would you have done to it?
  • What dinosaur is most suited to doing your job and why?
  • You have to come up with a new name for APRA using only a color, the name of a wild animal, a b-list celebrity’s name and some sort of gesture. Go.
  • What pirate phrases do you think should be standard in the prospect development lexicon?*******

There you go. You might never be able to tolerate true small talk, but hopefully these brilliant nuggets can help supercharge the interestingness of your conversations at conferences! (And maybe seem like a bit of a weirdo in the process…)

* What’s the difference between an introverted researcher and an extroverted researcher? The introverted researcher looks at his shoes when talking to you; the extroverted researcher looks at YOUR shoes when talking to you. (yuk yuk yuk…)
** Hopefully the person you’re talking to doesn’t just respond to this question by shouting “NERD!”
*** Let me know if anyone responds with “Mark Egge. Definitely Mark Egge.”
**** Mine is “Egge,” by the way.
***** Let me know if anyone says that I should be played by Brad Pitt.
****** Yes, I know, I stole this from John Hodgman.
******* Did you really think I would miss an opportunity to make a pirate reference?



5 responses to “The Worst Thing about the APRA Conference

    • Yes! This article is great.

      I think it’s the social context part that trips me up. In certain contexts — e.g., conferences, at work, etc. — small talk is relatively comfortable because I’m accustomed to it in that setting. In less structured and/or more unfamiliar settings, small talk is really painful because it may not be entirely clear what the “rhythms and rules” are.

  1. Great post, Mark – I hope to catch you in New Orleans for some high-level small talk!

  2. That pirate needs more flintlock pistols…. and rum.

  3. I definitely enjoyed your post. Unfortunately I won’t be attending APRA this year, but that may be just as well because I don’t know what I would do if I met anyone who started asking me “level eleven” type questions! Mostly I tend to stick with the second group of questions.
    Many years ago, I read a book called “The Art of Mingling” which contained advice and categories about selected questions to ask in any social gathering, much of which I have forgotten. Parts of it read like anthropological observations about the natural flow of conversations in social gatherings; for instance, there were tips about how to “drop in” to conversations near you, or how to extract yourself from particular awkward or uncomfortable ones. After I read it, I definitely made more of an effort to meet and speak with a certain number of new people at gatherings I attended. As it turns out, the author tweets @Miss_Mingle and earlier today announced that she plans a new edition of the book to be released later this year.

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