What I Learned From Conference Bingo

How a networking game can get conference attendees out of their seats

Adam Nekola
5 min readAug 12, 2015
At An Event Apart in DC, attendees get to break the ice by playing bingo with fun facts. In the matter of a few hours, I won the game by filling the board.

It’s all thanks to Tami from Miami.

Networking has always felt a little awkward to me. What business do I have inserting myself into someone’s conversation? Why would they be interested in what I have to say? When confronted with a crowd of people at a conference I suddenly felt like an inadequate adolescent, for unknown reasons.

Still, I’ve been determined to change that. After reading a post from Parse.ly about the tricks to network at a conference, I entered An Event Apart DC hoping for a change; what I got was conference bingo.

Rather than awkwardly introducing myself or asking the very District-esque question of “what do you do,” I was instead able to say “have you ever owned a Saturn?”

An Event Apart turned networking into a game — get enough signatures and win a prize. It didn’t seem to be catching on until Tami got involved and then it caught on like wildfire.

I sat at Tami’s table at lunch, taking part in some aforementioned awkward ice breaking. When we asked her name, she told us it was easy to remember, because she was from Miami. Tami from Miami.

Next to her was Allison Martin (from Pennsylvania; no rhyming here). Allison mentioned that her bingo card seemed impossible to finish; and I hadn’t even looked at mine. Tami assured us it wouldn’t be that difficult, and that she was determined to finish her card. Sure enough, “lives in Florida” was on my card. And Tami Gaines was from… Fort Meyers, actually.

Suddenly, as Sherlock Holmes might say, the game was on.

Allison was my second signature. She can drive a manual car; an impressive task these days, I said. She’s also considering a move from Allentown, PA, to Berlin; and wears many hats at her job, including photographer and videographer.

Initially it felt like we were trading baseball cards. We’d walk up to a group, share a few jokes, and move on. Already I had six signatures, but as it seemed that I might seriously fill this card, I wanted to make sure I was getting the most out of the experience. I became committed to learning about each of these people.

We’ve had a similar career path, starting in journalism and transitioning as we saw “the writing on the wall.”

I approached my friend Kevin Koehler and his colleague Dave Kennedy. Dave, I learned is a theme developer for Automattic — the WordPress parent company. We’ve had a similar career path, starting in journalism and transitioning as we saw “the writing on the wall.” As it turns out, Dave likes the taste of liver.

Kevin wanted to participate too; he scanned my list and didn’t think he could sign anything. “What’s Sliding Doors?” he asked. We Googled it.

Sure enough, Sliding Doors was a CSS technique before border-radius was enacted. That gave us a good laugh as we realized each of us had used this method, without knowing the name. I had another signature and learned a fun fact.

Kevin Hawkins attended the TED Conference at George Washington University. We’d been interacting on Twitter all morning. And he knew a twin here, to whom he graciously introduced me.

Marc Weiner owned a Saturn. Funny, I remarked, because that’s one at which people laughed the most. They said ‘oh, I definitely haven’t owned a Saturn,’ or ‘the poor person that’ll sign that one!’ We talked about his experience a bit until the next session started.

Just like that I had bingo — in only a few hours! But of course, I’ll never finish this, I thought. Some of these were far too tough — I’d have to talk to everyone here! Stephen Vanore at the registration table encouraged me to stick with it.

“Oh, Candy Crush, I can fill this one out,” he said. Really? Somewhat sheepishly he admitted his addiction.

OK, if I was going to finish this, I needed to get ambitious. Committed, I approach Jeffrey Zeldman and Sarah Parmenter — the conference’s first two speakers. “Surely one of you has had a tweet favorited by Anil Dash.” Sarah thought for a moment and lit up “I have!”

I bowed away, apologizing for interrupting their conversation. On one hand, I had the motivation to approach these excellent people, but on the other I didn’t have wherewithal to stick out a conversation with them. Slight disappointment there.

That didn’t stop me from asking the entire restroom line “has anyone here seen Cats on Broadway?”

With only two squares left, people were excited to help me out. So many had seen “Cats,” but not on Broadway. Staying true to the spirit of the contest, I pressed that the Cats tour was not good enough. But that didn’t stop me from asking the entire restroom line “has anyone here seen Cats on Broadway?” “Yeah, twice,” said the man behind me.

I took the above photo before finishing the card. As such, I’ve forgotten this man’s name and I feel terrible. We talked more about Broadway, and musicals in general. He’d seen it twice, despite being from Pennsylvania, because that’s what his mom wanted to do when visiting New York City.

Last box — “Was a camp counselor.” I approached my friend Kevin to get his take on the conference and shared that I had a lone square left, lamenting at the obstacle ahead of me. The woman next to him chimed in “really? I was a camp counselor.”

Fate. No other explanation.

How the heck did I find these people? She worked at the National Science Foundation with their data team and was curious about my company. Wasn’t I supposed to be learning about her? I guess it works both ways.

I talked to a lot of people; I made a few friends. But I learned some lessons too late. This was a major opportunity and I took the easy way out to start, passing around my bingo card as if it were a junior high yearbook.

Molly Snowberger was in high school band! What instrument did she play? I was in high school band! Danny Cohen had a Newton. I have no idea what that is; why didn’t I press him on that? Sadly, some of these signatures I can’t even read; guess I won’t be able to reconnect with them.

Yet, throughout the rest of the conference, plenty of people were saying ‘hello’ to me; stopping to see how my commute went. I felt comfortable. Afterward I found it easier to say hello to new people.

Talking wasn’t so difficult with a bit of practice. I ended up moving seats throughout the conference, hoping to sit next to friendly people.

All this because of a game and a serendipitous lunch seating. Maybe I’ve turned a corner.



Adam Nekola

Senior Digital Manager @ONA; Formerly @nwherald, @pewresearch, @fiscalnote. Softball pitcher; journalist; pizza. Grad of @Illinois_Alma.