It’s that time of year again. An annual season that strikes terror into the hearts of introverts the world over. Conference time. Few experiences are as terror inducing for introverts like me than being thrust into a swelling crowd and told, “Here … go be sociable.”
Thankfully, over the last couple of years — through hard won lessons and a little help from a handful of insightful articles — I’ve learned how to not just survive a conference … but thrive.
While the fear doesn’t go away completely, the following five tips will give you a fighting chance.
1. Connect Ahead of Time
One of the most difficult elements of attending an in-person conference for introverts is the anticipation. We think about how we’re going to deal with the unknown circumstances of the event, how we’re going to talk with people we don’t know, and how we’re going to be able to cope with the stress of it all.
If you simply start by getting in touch with colleagues your already know, it’s incredible how your trepidation diminishes.
All this really means is sending a quick email or making a quick phone call beforehand.
Why? Because it’s comforting to have someone we know — even in the slightest — when all around us are strangers.
What if you don’t know anyone?
If there’s a list of attendees available — often conferences provide a quick rundown of who’s coming — you might consider getting in touch with a fellow attendee that shares the same job description you do or works with a similar agency.
Plus with social media, organizers almost universally have a Facebook page or Twitter list dedicated to the conference itself. Like the page, subscribe to the list, and be sure to ask questions or respond to a few of the questions that are already there.
As Due points out in their 5 Tips for Networking as an Introvert:
Once you have established who you are online, it’s a little bit easier to transition to the offline world. When I first started networking as an introvert it helped a lot that I could approach people I felt that I “knew” through our online encounters. It made the transition from online to offline a little smoother.
2. Cover the Basics
Once you’ve arrived, unpacked, and checked in, don’t forget to cover the basics: namely … names.
For your own, make sure your badge or name tag is clearly visible.
To hike up your badge and make it easy for people to see your name, tie a knot in the lanyard at the back of your neck so your badge hangs higher near the center of your chest.
If you have the chance to write your name on your own nametag, make your name LARGE and LEGIBLE. Your first name is the most important thing. If you’re active on Twitter, your Twitter handle is the second most important thing. Last name, company and hometown are less important.
Remembering other people’s names can be tricky, but there are a few tips to help.
My personal favorite is mentally attaching new names to old names. This means committing a mental picture of a new person I’ve just met at the conference with someone in my own life who shares the same name. Neurosciencenews.com explains that this creates an emotional and cognitive association, which solidifies the new name in our memory.
As cliche as it might sound, use new names immediately after learning them. Repeat it back to the person: “Hi, [Blank]. It’s good to meet you, [Blank].” Or even better, introduce them to someone next to you: “Hi, [Blank 1]. This is [Blank 2]. Have you two met?”
3. Be Curious and Stay Curious
This tip is about preparing a series of go-to questions to start conversations. Think of it as your verbal safety blanket. Instead of making conversations about you — or, even worse, your “elevator pitch” — make it about the other people.
Start by making a list of one or two questions about each of the presentation you’re excited about. Asking someone else about who they’re excited to see and why is the most natural way to kick things off.
Then, prepare a second set of more interpersonal questions. Make your questions open-ended by using the word “Why” as much as possible. For inspiration, check out this list of networking questions that includes not only the three best conversation openers, but variations on each.
Any opportunity to allow others to discuss themselves is a great way for introverts to interact without having to put ourselves out there.
As fearful as you might be, show up to each presentation five minutes early. This will give you time to look for colleagues that you’ve met online. Additionally, it’ll offer you a priceless interaction with the presenter (especially at workshops) while there are few others in the room.
Use the lists of questions you’ve made. If it is a subject that the presenter suggests they’ll bring up during the presentation, don’t feel defeated. It will reassure the presenter that the material that they’ve planned on discussing will be relevant.
As is often said, the only stupid question is the question left unasked. Be brave, challenge yourself to put yourself … and always fall back to curiosity. You’ll get more out of the conference experience if you do.
4. Do More than Take Notes
Notes are great. In fact, notes are far better than just assuming you’ll take it all in and remember what’s important. The truth is … you won’t.
Research consistently proves that note taking helps us retain information. The Association for Psychological Science reports that longhand notes work significantly better than note taking on a laptop:
The notes from laptop users contained more words and more verbatim overlap with the lecture, compared to the notes that were written by hand.
Overall, students who took more notes performed better, but so did those who had less verbatim overlap, suggesting that the benefit of having more content is canceled out by “mindless transcription.”
“It may be that longhand note takers engage in more processing than laptop note takers, thus selecting more important information to include in their notes, which enables them to study this content more efficiently,” the researchers write.
However, while note-taking is a must … you can actually go one step beyond just note-taking.
Make the commitment — before you hit the conference itself — to bring back a short 15-45 minute workshop for either your co-workers or your friends.
This should be a “best of the best” sort of presentation to capture the highlights of the conference. Making the commitment beforehand will force you to not only take your notes but to constantly be on the lookout for practical takeaways. Plus, it’ll give you something to focus on when your anxiety starts to mount.
Make a simple outline to share or go as far as making a slide presentation. If you have it all organized and ready to present, your inner introvert will thank you … and so will the people you bring it to.
5. Remember … They’re All Human Too
When Andy Crestodina asked me to contribute to his massive 34 Ways to Get The Most From a Conference, the only thing I could think of was my own first conference experience at Copyblogger last year. I wrote:
For introverts, the vast amount of amazing people you’ll encounter can be overwhelming. But first, know you’re not alone. All around you are introverts just as anxious, freaked out, and hair-triggered to run back to their hotel rooms to hide.
Second, instead of focusing on what you can get out of the experience, focus on the people around you. Ask yourself over and over, “What can I give … not what can I get?”
Conferences are challenging for lots of people, introverts and extroverts alike. In the end, you’re all there for the same purpose: to learn and grow.
Instead of being reactive, get proactive: scope out a brother or sister introvert that seems to be having a harder time than you are. Go ahead and ask the person huddled in the back of the room, “Do you get as freaked out at these things as I do at these things?” You may make a new friend that understands your pain. At the very least, you’ve reached out and fulfilled that challenge you promised to give yourself for each day while you’re there.
Finally, if you feel the whole concept of conferences too daunting to even consider even with these tips, invest some time in acquiring stress relieving techniques or coping tools. There’s always at least one vendor providing those cute little squishy things to squeeze. Grab one. Or just take a walk when you really need to escape.
Breathe deep. And go back when you’re ready. You’re not a failure. You’re just human.
Survive … and Thrive
While attending a conference may not be heaven for you. It doesn’t have to be hell either.
Armed with good preparation (like reaching out to a few people before hand), practical communication tools (most notably, questions), and your own favorite stress relieving tactics … you can do more than survive. You can thrive.
Got your own favorite way to get through a conference as an introvert? Be brave and share it in the comments.