Marketing / Business networking

7 ways to kick ass at conferences when you’re an introvert

The true value of any conference lies in the people you connect with. This is easy if you’re an outgoing people person, but what if you’re an introvert? How do you make meaningful connections when small talk gives you hives? The key is to be prepared.

9 June 2015 by

Some things you’ve got to learn the hard way.

Five years ago I was grabbing something quickly from the breakfast table at a conference when she popped up right in front of me – one of my blogging heroes. The following conversation took place in my head.

How is she alone? Shouldn’t there be a line of people wanting to talk to her?

Maybe it’s because she’s from the US. Is it possible no one knows who she is?

Who cares whether anyone else knows who she is, she’s right in front of you and YOU know who she is.

Say something!

“Hi!”

She glanced at me, offered a smile and said “Hi” back.

An awkward silence ensued.

Oh God, I started this conversation so I have to keep it going! Ok Kelly, don’t say something stupid. DON’T SAY SOMETHING STUPID!

“Hey.”

Another awkward pause as she politely waited for more.

Then she gave up on me: “Ah yeah. Well I’ve got to go get ready for my session.”

My cheeks flushed red and a wave of shame washed over me as she walked away. Anger (at myself, not her!) followed soon after. I’d just missed an opportunity to have a nice conversation with someone I hugely admired, and I blew it. That’s what happens when an introvert rocks up to a conference unprepared.

Introversion presents two significant barriers to the unwary conference-goer.

First is the fact that one-on-one interaction with people is tiring for introverts (introversion is an energy thing, not a ‘shyness’ thing like most people think).

Second, introverts prefer to only contribute to a conversation when they have something meaningful to add. Translation: small talk gives them hives.

Introverts do, however, (contrary to popular belief) love people and particularly love connecting with like-minded people. Conferences offer an unparalleled ability to do this because they do tend to bring like-minded people together.

So can an introvert thrive in a conference environment? Sure they can!

Here are seven techniques I’ve developed:

1. Prepare prepare prepare

Research the speakers and find out what they’re about; what their ‘thing’ is. If there’s a list of attendees go through that too and make note of the people you’d particularly like to connect with. Then prepare your small talk in advance. Yes, I know this sounds a little lame and perhaps even a bit contrived. But it works. I went to a conference once with a list of nearly 30 people I wanted to say hi to (speakers included). Having a one-liner ready to go was key to having the confidence to strike up conversations with them. And once those conversations were started, they tended to keep going with very little effort from my end.

Pro tip: If you can find podcasts where the speakers or fellow attendees have been interviewed, these are a great way of finding out some really nuanced stuff that will make your conversations with these unfamiliar people even richer.

2. See if you can connect with people beforehand

Is there a Facebook group for the conference? Is there a Twitter hashtag? Use these places to chat with people who are going to be at the conference. If you’re an introvert then online/written communication is likely a sweet spot for you because it allows you to do that initial ‘getting-to-know-people-small-talk’ on your own terms. And it means that by the time you meet that person in real life, there’s no need for small talk! You can dive straight into a great conversation.

3. Remember you have a superpower

Introverts are great listeners. And people really like feeling that someone is interested enough in them to truly listen. So ask people about themselves and what they’re about … and then sit back and let them talk uninterrupted!

4. Have a wingman – if they’re an extrovert, all the better!

Your wingman will serve two purposes. The first is that they’ll be your ‘home base’ – someone you’re comfortable with and can return to if you’ve just finished having a super-awkward conversation (see top of this piece). The second is they can help with (*shudder*) networking.

If they’re a fellow introvert, they’ll be someone to share the load of starting conversations with people. If they’re an extrovert – woo hoo! You can let them take care of small talk and then bring yourself into the conversation once you’re ready.

5. Take time out

I’ve spent a lot of time in toilets at conferences. I do love people and once small talk is dispensed with, I can chat for Australia. But, like all introverts, I quickly get tired from all the interaction. So I give myself permission to take time out and you should too. You might go back to your room for an hour. You might spend 10 minutes in a toilet cubicle scrolling through Facebook on your phone. Whatever time you need to take to re-charge your batteries, take it. And then get back out there!

6. Leave a seat free at the table

I was recently at a three-day conference and it took me two days to figure this one out. If you’re sitting down somewhere for breakfast, dinner or … whatever, don’t sit at a table that’s exactly big enough for you and whoever you’re with. Sit down at a table where there are a few seats free. Because people will see you, know you’re at the same conference as them … and ask to join you. This is such a great way to meet new people and sitting around a table chatting is something most introverts are very comfortable doing.

7. Don’t go to the party if you don’t want to

Conference parties are great – everyone’s buzzing from the stuff they’ve learned, the people they’ve met and they’re keen to talk about it all. But if you’re anything like me, at the end of a long day of interaction the last thing you want to do is go somewhere loud and have conversations where the only way to be heard is to yell. So give yourself permission to skip the party if you just don’t have the energy for it. Chances are you’ll find a few others who would rather go out for a meal instead. So take the opportunity to be your best self with those few people rather than trying to force yourself to be a social butterfly when you’re tired.

While conferences are not the natural habitat of any introvert, they’re pretty amazing for forming relationships that can help your business in the long term. So if your introversion has been holding you back from attending one of these valuable events, hopefully these tips will give you the confidence to step outside your comfort zone.

Are you an introvert? Do you have any tried and true methods to share for getting the most out of a conference?

Kelly Exeter

is the Editor of Flying Solo and owner of Swish Design. She’s also an author and her most recent book 20 Simple Shortcuts to Small Business Success was written with fellow soloists and small business owners in mind. Connect with her on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

Comments

  • Tim Preston

    I call what I do at conferences wet-nerking, as opposed to networking. The main skill is finding a quiet corner in the tea break and standing there on my own with my cup slightly rattling in it’s saucer and spilling biscuit crumbs down my lapel, all while seriously inspecting the carpet. It’s no wonder I didn’t last in the corporate world!

    • Haha!!! I too have indulged in wet-nerking!! All I can say is ‘thank god for phones’ these days

  • Lorna Stewart

    I love this article Kelly. You might have been talking about me! Thanks so much for the terrific tips. They may just get me to another conference (shudder!) – I haven’t been to one for several years because of the shudder!!! Your advice will be a great experiment for me to have another go – at last there’s something different to try, and maybe I’ll get a different result. Lorna

    • Conferences are so amazing – my introversion has definitely kept me away in the past but these techniques really help!

  • Jon Bailey

    Kelly this is me also – thank you for writing this! You’re dead right about the energy thing. I was at the National Manufacturing Week show in Melbourne recently, with two colleagues. I realised I was the ‘lead’ as they were non-technical. It was exhausting going through small talk with person after person with those two as an audience! And yes, I did the toilet Facebook thing to recharge!

    • Oh wow I BET you were exhausted by the end. Definitely take along a fellow technical lead next time to share the load!

  • Robyn Harper

    Thanks for this Kelly. I’ve just booked myself on an o/s conference trip in September and, with that amount of outlay, I’d like to make the most of it. Being prepared with questions should help. And I like the idea of finding a smaller group to go to dinner with rather than staying for the after party.

    • Funny you say that because I am just back from a very expensive overseas conference and while I did make some awesome friends there, I felt I should have done better. I pretty much wrote the above as a reminder to myself for the next time!

  • LukeHally

    Great tips Kelly. As an introverted startup founder I find similar techniques are useful at meetups and networking events. One thing I would add is don’t forget your call to action. Early on I’d be so happy that I actually approached and spoke to the person in question, that I’d forget to ask what it was I wanted from them!

    My tip is make a bee line straight to someone after they have finished a presentation, I often find I can talk to them before everyone else gathers the ‘courage’ to approach them and they are still fresh and keen to talk.

    • Ha!! So you’re that person who always manages to get to the speaker first! You’re so right – get in right at the end of the talk when everyone else is hanging back thinking ‘should I?’

  • Maria Doyle

    Love it! I so need to do this next time – I always find myself in the corner trying my hardest to dissolve into the curtains! ha! these are great tips – thank you! 🙂

  • Great post Kelly!! Luckily my first conference was on ‘that boat’ and it was tiny in comparison to some of the larger ones! You were a speaker and you were FANTASTIC and lovely to talk to in real life too! I hope Jen and I weren’t too overpowering for you…being the extroverts we are! In saying that I still love a good 10min loo break! x

    • You guys were awesome!! Can’t believe that was your first conference. The small group was nice wasn’t it?

  • sneezync

    Thanks for sharing your experience and those tips Kelly! Great article. As an introvert myself, I always struggle at networking events and have never got the courage to attend a paid conference (I don’t want to waste money if I don’t feel confident enough that I will get that much networking out of it). Your tips are definitely helpful for my first conference.

    • I definitely hope they get you to a few conferences – honestly, they’re so amazing for connecting with people

  • We (my wife Pinky and I) are headed to PB this year and I’m a big ole introvert. We’re each other’s wingman but Pinky excels in conversation which leaves me to add the odd amusing quip. On my own though, I’m totally hopeless and get easily flustered!

    • I believe I know of your Pinky. You are in good hands with such an awesome wingman(woman)!!

  • writeofthemiddle

    OH Kelly you have hit the nail on the head explaining what being an introvert is! It is indeed an energy thing not a shyness thing! I am not shy but I get so drained from interaction with people – especially when it’s a lot of people and even more so if it is people I have never met before coz I have to work harder (if you know what I mean). I am booked to go to ProBlogger in August and I am terrified as to how I will cope. I have contemplated selling my ticket and cancelling my room booking multiple times. I booked a room alone because I know I am going to need that place of solitude to escape to and to recharge in. I have no wingman? How do I find a wingman? I have some stuff to do before August it seems – to prepare. Thank you so much for this wonderful post. It will be so helpful for me!! x

    • Oh Min – don’t sell your ticket! Sooooooo many bloggers are introverts. As is Darren. So it is a VERY introvert friendly conference! Are you in the Facebook group for the event? Maybe we should do a ‘find a wingman’ thing in there!

      • writeofthemiddle

        Yes I am a member of the PB group for the event Kelly and I think your ‘find a wingman’ idea thingy is a good one!! I think there are some people going that I’ve met before here in Brisbane but it would be nice to have someone in my corner so I don’t feel quite so alone and have a freak out and run off to my room! 😉

  • Joe Lawrence

    love this!

  • Lucinda Lions

    What a comprehensive article, Kel. Absolute gold. I don’t think it’s lame to prepare at all. If we prepare for formal meetings, why not prepare for informal ones too?
    I’m sure the blogger you referred to in your article was busy, but I just wonder why she didn’t chime in and say something, instead of leaving the conversation all up to you (especially when you were slightly star struck), and eventually excusing herself?

    • So true Lucinda! And Darren Rowse tells me that blogger was also an introvert so probably as incapable as me at making a conversation happen from nothing!

      • Lucinda Lions

        Ah-ha! All makes sense now. 🙂

  • Matthew White

    This a great article Kelly. I think most people can relate to it. I’ve often checked for non existent voice mails on my phone at conferences just to look busy. Tip 6 is one I shall use in the future!

    • I slapped my head at only figuring out tip 6 two days into that three conference. So many missed opportunities!!

  • So glad I’m not alone. How often I have stood in a corner trying to look ‘importantly engaged in social media’ eyes on phone while scanning the room for a familiar face I feel comfortable to talk to!

    • Oh lordy – I too have spent a lot of time doing that same thing. Thank goodness for phones!

  • Emily Coltman

    Lots of interaction tiring? Listening rather than talking? Not wanting to go to a noisy evening party? That’s me to a T. Great article and delighted I’m not alone in feeling this way!

  • Mark

    Thanks Kelly, your so correct on introverts re “the 2 barriers and I love people”. I wish other non-introverted people understood; all good that people like you keep publishing on this and hopefully we all don’t have to wear a tag around our necks…

  • Love your work Kelly. Perfect timing on this topic for me, as I’m attending #pbevent in August, where I believe you’ll be presenting – yay! I a reformed introvert and now often suffer from verbal diarrhea when I’m nervous – I’ve been known to say some pretty stupid things in my time!. I promise to have something un-stupid to ask or say when I see you at pbevent, and I look forward to meeting you in person. Cheers 🙂

  • Vanessa Emilio

    Great advice! Especially number one-there are often some really interesting people that you would not have known about otherwise if you do not research them in advance. It’s a great way to break the ice, find people who you may have alot in common with or be able to/want to work with that have skill sets you might need, mentors or just plain great new friends!

  • I wish I had read this before attending a conference last week with another 1500 people. That was tough going. It’s so hard to approach new people and just not hang with the one or two you already know. Thanks for the great tips and now we realise all the introverts are standing in corners reading stuff on their phones, we should be able to approach each other with ease and relevant small talk and have a laugh at our own expense.

  • This advice is absolute GOLD, I recently attended a conference with 450 delegates and made a handful of good connections, just by chance though.
    It would have been so much better if I had followed this advice and done some research and preparation, definately would have added so much more value to my commitment of time and money to attend the event.
    In hindsight I had a good opportunity to do this as there was a FB group page set up pre conference, this page has continued to be used post conference, a great tool for maintaining the connections.
    We are running our own event late next year and already have a FB group page setup and there is already engagement happening there.
    I have saved the link to this post to share with our attendees closer to the time of the conference.
    Thanks for sharing

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