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How Introverts Can Make the Most of Conferences

How Introverts Can Make the Most of Conferences

For introverts, attending a conference can feel exhausting. But if you avoid conferences — or just avoid talking to anyone while attending them — it can hurt your career and your business. The good news is that you don’t have to go against the grain of your own personality to get value from conferences and other networking events. For some practical advice on the best ways to handle conferences as an introvert, The Harvard Business Review turned to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and co-founder of Quiet Revolution:

HBR: What’s your advice for introverts who dread attending conferences at all?

Cain: When people think of attending a conference, they imagine three days of endless small talk, which is most people’s idea of hell — extroverts included. There’s so much pressure to make the most of it, and to meet as many new people as you can. But that’s not for everybody. Most people — introverts and extroverts, included — need time to recharge in their hotel rooms, but many of us don’t feel comfortable doing that. If we were more willing to go to a conference feeling entitled to take the recharge breaks we need, the entire experience would be more comfortable.

What criteria should introverts use to decide which conferences to attend, to make sure it’s worth the time and effort?  

The key is to attend conferences where you’re genuinely interested in the material. That way, you’re more likely to feel engaged, and to have something to talk about with other attendees.

What are the most high-value/low-impact activities for introverts at a conference? For example, can you just go to the keynotes and skip the meet-and-greets? 

That’s a very personal question. Some people are at their best in the morning and might be better at a breakfast. Some people are better in the evening over a glass of wine. So, know yourself and honor that. Feel entitled to be who you are and not conform to some ideal of what a conference attendee is supposed to be and do.

You’ve written previously that the problem most introverts have with “networking” is not talking to strangers but rather making small talk with strangers — a subtle but crucial difference. Can you explain?

For many introverts, if they feel that they’ve met somebody whose company they truly enjoy and they’ve managed to land on a topic of mutual interest, they’ll be very happy to chat. In fact, Carl Jung described introverts as “relaxing into extroversion” when they’re in those moments. So the real issue becomes: how do you get to that moment? You often have to wade through a lot of small talk first!

And here’s where introverts can actually make the most of their personalities. Many introverts are highly curious, and have a great love of learning. For every person you meet, tap into that character strength and think: “There’s something interesting about everyone. What can I learn from this conversation? What can I give? What am I curious about in terms of what makes this person tick?” Ask interesting questions that tap into your intrinsic love of learning.

I would advise making a deal with yourself that your goal is to meet some prescribed number of people who are kindred spirits — people you enjoyed meeting. When you’ve reached that number, you get to go back to your hotel room and watch a movie in your pajamas.
How do you break the ice with complete strangers in a way that feels authentic and natural?

Go in armed with a few conversation-starting questions. Maybe they relate to the content of the speech you just heard, or to something more personal. Think about what those questions are in advance so that you’re not trying to think them up on the spot.

Also, one thing people may not realize — especially introverts — is that it’s so much easier to attend a conference if you’re one of the speakers, because everyone’s heard your talk, and now you immediately have something to talk about with everyone in the room. They already know you. You can even take on a small role like moderating a panel where you don’t have to have the answers; you just have to ask the questions. Or, you can be the person who introduces once of the speakers, just reading a bio.

Of course, this isn’t possible for every conference you attend. But, you’re probably only going to attend a few conferences a year, so think strategically about ones where you can play an active role, get out of your comfort zone, and ultimately make your networking much easier. You’ll get so much more bang for your buck this way.

And for people who are relatively junior in their careers, it’s one of the best ways to signal to supervisors that you’re progressing. Let your manager know that you’re looking for these kinds of opportunities to present, and strategize with a trusted mentor about where you might be able to do that.

What if the prospect of public speaking fills you with horror?

There are a few things that can help. First, know that you’re not alone – millions of people feel the same way. But it’s worth figuring out how to overcome the fear, because it’s going to come up again and again in your career. Enroll in a program like Toastmasters so you get more accustomed to the feeling of speaking.

This advice isn’t for everyone — take it when you’re ready. But, I give it from personal experience. I used to dread speaking myself. But, I now attend so many conferences and have found that the networking aspects are a thousand times more interesting and easier than they used to be when I’ve been a speaker, because there’s not so much small talk anymore — we can just dive right in to more interesting things.

Conferences can also be pretty draining for extroverts, who thrive on all the social interaction. How do you decide on an appropriate limit to your schedule? And when you’ve had enough, how do you elegantly say no to further interactions?

Most people don’t notice or mind if you just say: “I’m going to turn in — can’t wait to see you tomorrow.” Make a graceful exit, and that’s that. If you know that you are going to allow yourself to leave early, it’s a lot easier to be fully present and engaged for the time that you’re there. You’re actually doing the other person (and everyone around you) a favor by being willing to grant yourself permission to leave early. I have a friend who accepts every invitation, to every wedding, and every child’s birthday party. She always says yes to everything and she always leaves early. No one minds. I don’t think anyone else is even aware of it. It’s perfectly fine, and it’s no big deal. And because she does that, she really shows up for people.

That’s a great way to avoid what some people have termed the “introvert guilt” they feel when bowing out.

That’s right. You don’t need to feel guilty about bowing out of anything. Just ask yourself in advance: “What will success look like for this conference or event?” Does it mean you met some specific people that you really wanted to meet? That you’ve made 10 new connections? Set your goal. Otherwise, you could spend the entire evening circling a networking event and then go home feeling both tired and like you didn’t get anywhere. Be purposeful, and when you know you’ve reached your goal, go home and relax guilt-free.

Dana Rousmaniere/HBR/November, 2015