If you’ve ever attended a conference, managed okay during the morning talks on day one, but then almost had a panic attack at lunch time when you entered the ballroom full of strangers chowing down on the conference buffet, then this post is for you. I speak at a lot of tech conferences, which is pretty funny given that I definitely skew toward the introverted end of the spectrum. Introverts come in a lot of different flavours, so before I go any further, I’ll define mine.
I genuinely like being around people and making real connections, but I can only do it in small doses before needing to recharge. I’m also kind of shy (which I don’t consider an introvert trait, because I know many extroverts who are shy as well), which means it’s an effort to initiate contact with strangers. And I don’t do small talk well AT ALL, so if you’ve ever met me at a conference and thought to yourself later, “Well, that was the most awkward conversation I’ve had in ages”… what can I say? Not my strong suit. But get me fired up about a specific passion of mine — books, parenting, baking, travel, various technologies — and watch me go.
When I first started going to conferences many years ago — often as a solo person from my company — I really struggled with feeling like an outsider looking in. And ugh, that horrible ultra-depressing feeling of being surrounded by people yet totally alone. I’d get so caught up in this feeling that it seriously affected my ability to focus on the event. A couple of times, I’d start out the day with the best intentions to try harder, but would give up by lunchtime, defeated by the massive ballroom with half-filled tables full of strangers chowing down at the conference buffet. I’d spend the rest of the day sequestered in my hotel room.
Returning home at the end of each event, I felt demoralized and guilty, which is a really deadly combo for the morale of an otherwise high achiever (which many introverts tend to be). Eventually, I developed coping strategies that helped me to not just survive, but actually enjoy conferences — on my terms. I hope you find some of these helpful.
Before you go
1. Don’t be intimidated
Sounds obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway. You may have this mental picture of conferences as being massive rooms full of gregarious loud-talking types, and to some degree that picture is accurate. But don’t let this freak you out. If you can set your social anxiety aside, conferences have amazing energy and are a fantastic way to get yourself excited and motivated about a topic. When I leave an event, I feel supercharged about my work and full of inspiration and ideas for new research and things to write about. Social media is great, but it doesn’t give you that.
Find the speakers list and get to know the speakers online. (This sounds creepy, but really it’s not.) Follow them on Twitter. Talk with them on Twitter, if that’s something you’re comfortable with. Read their blogs. Knowing who’s who will help you feel more like an insider, especially if you’re attending solo. You’ll also be able to recognize these folks when you see them, and you’ll know enough about their work to spark a conversation if you feel like it.
A note about this: As an invited speaker, I feel that one of my responsibilities at a conference is to be open to talking with anyone who wants to talk with me. I’m always happy when people introduce themselves to me in person or via Twitter or wherever. So if there’s someone you want to chat with, or just say “Hi, I like your blog” to, do it.
3. Book your room in the hotel that’s hosting the event
I’ve found that staying at an off-site hotel really ramps up my anxiety because I feel like I’m going to be trapped in a public space for eight hours straight. And I know from experience that if I have to be “on” for eight hours straight, I’ll be completely tapped out by the end of day one. Having on-site accommodations is my security blanket. I no longer do my hermit act, but I do zip up to my room at least a couple of times a day for a brief recharging session. Often this means sitting at my laptop and following the conference’s Twitter feed, so I still feel connected but in a quiet space. I try to limit these sessions to no more than 30 minutes at a time. Any longer than that and it’s too tempting to get sucked into staying.
4. Know in advance what you want to get out of the event
Autreat is an excellent conference created for and by autistic people. One of the many things that makes it great is that it recognizes and respects that people have different social needs and capabilities, as well as different goals in terms of what they want to get out of the event. Based on this understanding, the conference organizers have created a simple but comprehensive set of rules for social interaction.
I’m not suggesting that all conferences should issue colour-coded badges that indicate the wearer’s willingness to engage socially — though the idea does have some appeal. 😉 Rather, I bring this up because it illustrates the importance of knowing what you want to get out of an event. So if you’re planning to attend a conference, ask yourself:
- Do I even want to network?
- If so, do I want to do it in person or online? Or both?
- Or am I going to this event primarily to learn from workshops and panels?
While you’re there
5. Engage on terms you’re comfortable with
When you’re at the event, remind yourself of the priorities you defined in #4 so that you don’t start beating yourself up for not being as social as everyone else seems to be. If you’ve decided that your main goal is not to meet people, but instead to listen and learn from workshops, that’s fine. Focus on that, and take the pressure off yourself to be the king or queen of networking. If you don’t want face-to-face conversations, follow the conference’s hashtag on Twitter and jump in if you have something to say.
6. Thoughts on talking to strangers
If the word “networking” makes you break out into a cold sweat, that’s because it’s one of the most terrifying words in the introvert’s vocabulary, along with “mingling” and “brainstorming”. So put those words out of your head. “Networking” is just talking to people. If one of your conference goals is to make a few connections, then here are some thoughts on how to do that a little more easily.
The good thing is that, unlike a random party full of strangers, you have something in common with every single person at a conference: you’ve gathered together to learn about a common topic. Instant brother/sisterhood, right? Well, maybe not completely, but it does help. It’s easy to start a conversation with “Have you gone to any really good sessions?” or “What talks are you planning to check out?”
In other conversational situations, I ask people a lot of questions about themselves. I’m genuinely interested in people, so this is a good strategy for me. And it’s usually win-win no matter what kind of person I’m talking to.
This sort of feels like social cheating, but when I’m at an event, I tend to gravitate toward gregarious types. Like a lot of introverts, I feel relaxed around extroverts because I know they’re more than capable of carrying their share of a conversation and there are unlikely to be any awkward silences. I’m a good listener (AKA an extrovert’s best friend), so as long as I don’t mind rarely getting a word in edgewise, this is a good strategy.
6.a Thoughts on talking to strangers (addendum for women)
It’s not a secret that many women tend to be people pleasers, a trait that I’ve wincingly had to acknowledge in myself. There’s nothing wrong with pleasing others, but not if it comes at the expense of your own comfort level. I can tie myself up in knots worrying about whether or not I seem friendly and approachable enough, because I hate the idea that, by seeming distant, I’m making others feel bad.
I think a lot of women struggle with respecting their own needs when it comes to mental down time and cutting ourselves some slack if we don’t feel like being 100% super-friendly all the time. It’s definitely something I’m working on. And really, when we give ourselves permission to not be “on” 24/7, everyone wins. It means that when I’m engaged with a person or group, I’m sincerely engaged, not just faking it (badly, no doubt) in order to be nice.
7. Keep a conference journal
My laptop is a must-have for the conferences I go to, but I also bring a paper notebook with me and write down ideas and questions that occur to me throughout the event. I also doodle relentlessly. I find that most of my creative ideas come out in my notebook. If you’re not a notebook person, by all means do your journalling on your gadget of choice. It’s a great way to bounce ideas off of someone whose judgement you respect: yourself.
When you get back home
8. If you meet people you like, maintain the connection
Face-to-face interaction is one of my challenge areas, but I’m pretty good with social media. That’s why, when I meet people at events, I try to connect with them later on LinkedIn or Twitter.
9. Consider speaking at a conference
As counter-intuitive as this sounds, I started enjoying conferences more when I started speaking at them. Speaking makes me feel more connected to the event. It also makes it more likely that people will come up to me instead of vice versa, which is a great workaround for my shyness problem.
Contrary to what some people might think, being an introvert doesn’t always equate to a fear of public speaking. In some ways, I’m much more comfortable standing in front of a room of hundreds of people, speaking about a topic I’m passionate about, than trying to make small chat with a stranger. Sure, I get a bit of stage fright beforehand, but that’s because I’m human, not because I’m an introvert.
I hope these were helpful. And hey, if you ever see me at an event, please come up and say hi.