The introvert’s guide to surviving conferences

T-Shirt slogan - "Just shy, not antisocial. You can talk to me"

Sometimes I feel the need to explain myself at conferences!

How do you feel when you walk into a conference venue for the first time and look around at a sea of unfamiliar faces?

If you’re like me even the smallest, cosiest conferences can be intimidating.

Standing up in front of a whole room and presenting isn’t what I find difficult. I’ve been doing it since 1996 so I’m quite well practised at it.

I’m naturally an introvert, if you want to think in Myers Briggs terms. We’ve been doing a lot of team development around understanding personality types over the last few years. This doesn’t mean shy, it’s about where you get your energy from. For me, talking with people takes energy out of me while quiet moments are recharge time. Meeting people for the first time is particularly draining, mostly because I’m concentrating on making a good impression and trying to retain lots of new information.

An international digital storytelling conference I was at in May was an important one for me professionally but I was attending by myself (no colleague backup) and I only knew some of the people there by reputation. Netskills had put up a lot of resources in time and budget for me to attend so it was crucial I made the most of my time.

These were the guidelines that I tried to follow to make the most of the event but also to make sure I didn’t completely exhaust myself by the end of day 3!

Recognise it’s OK to be an introvert.

The main thing I’ve tried to work on is simply acknowledging that having introvert tendencies doesn’t disqualify me from taking part in events like this.

Most conferences are set up to be extrovert-friendly with extended breaks and dedicated “networking opportunities” (shudder!). This can create the impression that you are expected to behave in a certain way.

It’s important to not try to act too much out of the style you feel comfortable with. I can only keep up extrovert behaviours for short periods of time and I know I come across as tense and awkward when I do this. I’ve noticed this puts other people on edge and it’s difficult to have a natural conversations when I’m like this.

Drinks reception at the conference

Drinks reception. The horror!!

Most of the discomfort I feel at conferences is from assuming that I’m supposed to be behaving differently.

Find a role

I always feel more at home in something if I have a role. I know that that I’m unlikely to be the person at a conference that is openly challenging speakers and debating vociferously. This time round I was able to help with bringing people outside the conference into the mix through Twitter.

Replying and retweeting other attendees is also useful as it raises your profile without you having to go round pressing the flesh. On reflection I should have changed my avatar to one that was more recognisably me (at the time it was a photo of me taken by my son but rendered in Lego blocks!).

Time out!

If you’re an introvert you need to have time to detach from the crowd and give yourself some space. It’s important not to feel self conscious about this. Nobody will judge you!

The venue we were in was set up on a hillside on the outskirts of Ankara which meant that there were escape routes to go for short walks in the sunshine with no one else around. I didn’t force myself to think about stuff on these walks – just letting my mind wander can be a useful activity.

View from the conference centre, Ankara

A quiet moment away from the crowd.

Three days is a long time to keep energy levels up so I tried to pace myself. It was useful that there were viewing stations set up showing digital stories from various projects with comfy sofas that made a good point of retreat. Some conferences I’ve been to seem to be intent on providing constant activity but with little time or space for retreat, so it was nice to find one that wasn’t.

I find the travel back from events is a good time to wind down but the flipside is that for anyone travelling with me I do become non-communicative and zombie-like..

Borrow a little extroversion

Sometimes it’s useful to do stuff that feels uncomfortable, otherwise nothing would ever change.

I lost count of the number of times I had the “so, what do you do?” conversation. Most of them were very brief, snatched as we moved between sessions or on the way to the bus but that was OK. Apart from anything else I just thought it was polite to introduce myself to new people I was standing/sitting next to but a few of these led onto to very interesting conversations and what I hope will be long lasting connections.

If I’d just done the comfortable thing I’d have missed out on that.

It gets easier

As the three days wore on I found that it was getting progressively easier to chat to people. We had more of a shared experience so we had more in common to talk about. It’s just that initial hurdle of the first conversation that’s difficult for me.

Once more unto the breach…

Keep doing it. Making the most out of conferences is a skill and the more you practice the better you’ll get. A few weeks later I was at the HEA Storyville conference in Brighton.

Some more suggestions

Although not specifically aimed at introverts, Lawrie Phipps compiled this ebook of suggestions for Surviving Conferences. Incidentally, it was put together with help from our very own Steve Boneham.

But what about you? Share your nuggets of wisdom on making the most out of conferences.

Cool T-shirt #1 image by Ran Yaniv Hartstein (CC-BY), a design by XKCD