It is true that conferences can be intimidating. Attending your first one can often seem like a right of passage, but I generally hope that these initial forays into the world of symposia and conferences are not hazing rituals. My first conference gave me a thoroughly good experience and, in the long term, I think led to my current position as Treasurer for the Museum Ethnographers Group. In this article, I'll offer some advice as to how you might make yourself an active part of a conference - because it is not only the organisers who control your experience, but you yourself.
If you are presenting, it's often somewhat easier. You have a role, a job to do. You also have a topic to talk about and that people might come up to you and converse about. But you also have other worries. If so, you might wish to follow the guidelines in my previous post, Presentation Tips and Speaking in Public, for some guidance in that regard.
There are general guidelines, however, that can help you to get as much out of any individual conference as possible, whether you're presenting or not.
You'll already be interested in the topic anyway, but try to find out about the organisation that is running the event and about the people that are going to be there. Read some of their other papers if possible: then you'll have something to talk to them about.
Do some refresher reading to get you up to speed on likely topics of discussion. This way you'll be able to join in fully and actively.
If it is a multi-stream event, then work out beforehand a sensible itinerary of the sessions you'd like to go to. This can change, of course, but it is useful to have a plan if you want to make the most of your time.
At the Event
If you've done your prep, then you may be able to spark off conversations with people. Ask about their work, what they do, their interests...perhaps even ask them a question about their latest publication. This can seem a little creepy and brown-nosing, but if you do it right and for the right reasons it isn't - it's showing an interest. Only do it if you're genuinely interested: don't try to cosy up to someone just because they're a bigwig in the field and might one day be your thesis examiner.
Speak with speakers that you have seen and are interested in. If you weren't able to go to someone's paper, attempt to identify them and talk to them. Perhaps ask if they have a copy of their paper they'd be willing to send you. You'd be surprised how many people will say yes, and be chuffed to pieces that you've gone out of your way to show an interest.
Dress well: well, appropriately. Present yourself as you wish to be known.
Be open and willing to engage in conversation. If you're finding it hard to network, then maybe join a friendly looking bunch of people and get sucked into a conversation that way.
But these events aren't all about networking. The central, and most important thing, I think, is that you get some intellectual stimulation as a consequence of attending. So, be an active listener. Try to make connections between presentations and discussions and your own work. Work out how you might use what you've learned in the future.
After the Event
Keep in contact with interesting people. Don't just put their business cards away. I find this really hard, I get very embarrassed sending 'first contact' emails, but making connections really adds value to your conference experience in the long term.
Read over your conference notes and do something with them! Even if it is as simple as a blog post about your time at the conference, make something of the experience.
If you presented, and you get the chance to contribute to a resulting collection of papers, do so! It is very much worth it and a good, non-threatening, publication experience.
Conferences are at least partly what you make them. If you go into them with a sense of exploration, eager to discover what they have to offer you, you're more likely to get a fulfilling and stimulating experience. Even the worst conference probably has something to offer - it's up to you to find it, and if the event really isn't working, to use it as a piece of advice as to how NOT to run your own symposia in the future.
Conferences and their kin aren't one homogeneous event, presided over by an individual or organising committee. They are a nexus point where a group of people come to have an interlinked series of personal intellectual events: you are all a part of the web.