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.
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.
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!
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?