I’m going to let you in on a little secret. For those of you who know me reasonably well, this is potentially the worst kept secret since the Caramilk thingy (really, they just fuse the two pieces together). I’m an Introvert (capital “I” is intentional). This is a surprisingly difficult thing to admit or put out there. I have spent most of my life pretending that I am not, even wishing that I was not and while the world now is a bit better place for us “I”s it still feels like I am outing myself as something less than desirable. So why do it? Why write a piece that puts it out there? For me, today, it is because I am embarking on a truly challenging time in my annual cycle: Conference Season. Less selfishly, the longer I work in this field the more of “us” I meet and the more I realize that my experience, trepidations, anxieties, and fears are relatable and normal for others. So, I thought I would compose a little guide that lays out some of my conference tips for those who may be new to it, or for those who may want a different perspective on what they feel or experience.
There Is No Secret Handshake
You look at the conference schedule and realize that your first hurdle may very well be the highest: the dreaded opening reception. The opening reception can represent a myriad of pitfalls, short conversations, handshakes, and names to remember. What will you say? What if you forget someone’s name? What if you run out of funny anecdotes? What will you wear? In the end, it can feel like you’re the new kid in school and everyone else knows the secret handshake.
Seriously, there “likely” isn’t a secret handshake…and most likely some kind soul will teach you if there is. However, if you do feel vulnerable or anxious in these moments, try and take perspective, make attainable goals (meet three new people, stay until 11, etc.), and in extreme cases throw caution to the wind and buddy up!
This is a great tip if, like me, you have a hard time entering a room alone and being “on” or just being for that matter. Prior to the event (reception, banquet, networking event, meal, etc.) set up a time to meet with somebody you are comfortable with and attend the event together (at least in the beginning). This way you will be sure there is a “friendly” face in the crowd from the get-go. It’s important that both you and your buddy are comfortable enough that you feel some confidence with each other and that you are able to provide support at the event (introductions, conversation starters, quiet moments of reflection). It’s also important that you both feel free to fly solo or exit when needed. Lastly, the best buddies are those that can provide each other with a mutually beneficial relationship so that neither of you feels on the spot or held back. In essence, choose your buddy wisely and know when you need to focus on what you need.
Focus On What You Need
If the thought of being in a space with many, or even a few, other people with few opportunities for recharge seems daunting it is important to focus on what you need. For me, lots of short conversations and brief introductions can be draining, in essence, I am a dreadful small talker. To find balance, I focus on ensuring that I am able to have longer, more meaningful conversations with people. Sometimes, this is a pre-arranged meeting in a space and time that works or just the natural flow from a previous conversation. Also, it is important to know when you’ve reached your limit and need to get away, take a break, and recharge your batteries.
Take A Break
Most conferences I have attended have no lack of opportunities for you to connect and get to know others, however, as an introvert, it is equally important that you are prepared to take some time away. Early in my career, I felt the need to do everything, be at every social opportunity and engage at every possible opportunity. By the end of a 3 day event I would be at best completely ragged, at worst I would be exhausted, homesick, and depressed. I have learned over time to ensure that I am taking time away after a large event or prior to in an effort to prepare myself and recharge the batteries. So, investigate a local coffee joint, quiet reading spot, music store, or running path. Get in tune with what will serve you best and don’t be afraid to step outside of the conference schedule (a little bit) to get what you need so you can be fully present for the entirety of the conference.
One way to break the ice and also to challenge yourself is to present at a conference. You may feel that putting yourself on the schedule is daunting but it comes with side benefits. First, talk about a conversation starter—now you have something in common with every other presenter. Second, you have provided other people at the conference with a topic to chat with you about…a reason to come to you and engage beyond the traditional “hi, how was your year?” Third, you now have a platform to engage in smaller conversations in your presentation room or at a break between sessions with people who are genuinely interested in your topic and you. So, if you can build up beyond any anxiety you have in terms of public speaking or the required preparation, presenting a session at a conference is an excellent way to get involved, meet people, and connect outside of traditional networking opportunities.
Above all other guidance my hope is that this list makes clear the importance of preparation leading into conference season. This is not to say that extroverts get off easy and don’t need to put in the time or energy in preparing themselves, however, often this type of preparation is more natural for those who get energy from meeting people. As an introvert, I have found it important to plot out times in the schedule to be alone, to continue some semblance of normal routine (morning workouts, walks, etc.), to connect with folks at home or at the conference who are important to me, and to gear up for the bigger events. I have also found that it is valuable for me to work with my colleagues to recognize when I may be struggling and need a moment of quiet or support. Sometimes, this is as simple as a knowing glance or a quick check-in, but even the simplest connection or acknowledgement can be enough to help me push the reset button.
I have discovered the importance for me in taking time before and after the conference to recharge. For me, that means being at home; for you, it may mean travelling around the city. Whatever you do, it’s important that you plan for it, ask for time if needed, and commit to that investment in yourself.