A friend was asking me for some advice on how to have a successful first conference experience (at a non-tech conference) and I had some thoughts that might be useful to others as well.
- Volunteer. There's no better way for a newbie to meet people than to volunteer. You usually get a chance to come in contact with conference organizers, speakers, and attendees alike. And the feeling of “officialness” can take the edge off of newbie nerves.
- Remember everyone here wants to make new friends. A conference is one of the few places where randomly introducing yourself to people is nearly always welcome. Someone looks interesting? Introduce yourself. Someone is standing alone? Introduce yourself.
- You don't have to be interesting. Everyone who attends a conference as a “nobody” feels the urge to “puff up”: to make their experience/accomplishments/plans sound impressive to stand up to all the other impressive people. But this kind of posturing tends to be obvious and off-putting. Being real about your new-ness and yes, even about your anxieties, is disarming and relatable and a much better way to make friends.
- Find a conf buddy. If you're in the lunch line and you hit if off with a fellow attendee who is as shy and anxious as yourself, you're going to feel tempted to stand off to the side with them for the rest of the event. Here's a better plan: ask them to be your conf buddy. Roam around together, meeting people and joining knots of conversation. Suddenly, you're not an awkward loner anymore: you're a cool person with a friend! You're no longer 100% responsible for filling quiet moments in conversations. It's 10x easier to meet more new people when you have a friend with you than when you're alone.
I hope these suggestions are helpful to you!