Tips from introverts for introverts on how to survive a conference

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[Image description: A little tan chihuahua lying on a bed, its front paws on an open book. What a cute and studious little puppy. Image obtained from Pixabay]

If you are an introvert, attending a conference can be an overwhelming experience. The 12-hours of networking. The constant discomfort of trying to figure out where to sit. The intrusive icebreakers that involve disclosing to strangers things that even your own family members don’t know about you! (“Dad…there’s something I should tell you. My favorite ice cream flavor is chocolate fudge brownie.”)

If the thought of spending time with hundreds of other people at a conference for several days makes you want to run home and re-binge-watch all four seasons of “Battlestar Galactica,” you are not alone. (But you probably wish to be! #introvertjokes!) People think I’m an extrovert because I do so much public speaking, but the reality is that as a nonprofit leader I have learned to use extroversion skills for my job, but that I need a lot of alone time to reflect and recharge. This is why I like, and need, to write all the time…and why I’m fully caught up on most popular TV shows.

So I asked the NAF Facebook community for tips on attending conferences as an introvert, and within hours received over 220 comments from fellow introverts. Apparently this is a huge topic, and there are many great resources on it, including:

Here are more tips from introverts for introverts below, in no particular order, and apologies for leaving so many out. For the full thread, please go the NAF Facebook page

  1. Ashley Fontaine: “Never share a hotel room for any reason.” An introvert’s room is their sanctuary. I know we work in nonprofits and resources are always tight, but it is one of an introvert’s worst nightmares is sharing a room with anyone, even the people we like. You extroverts who like sharing rooms, just remember that introverts are more prone to commit sleep-stabbing. It’s like sleepwalking…but with more stabbing.
  2. Rhys Hansen:“Sell your plasma ahead of time so that when your org wants to book you in a shared room you can spring for your own.”
  3. Lita-Marie Wills: “Get there early, find an empty table so others can ask to sit with you vs the other way around. Who’s alone now?”
  4. David Armstrong: “Always have headphones with you. Even if you aren’t listening to music.” Put them on when you want some peace and quiet. However, make sure they are plugged into your phone or laptop.
  5. Catherine H. Cleary:“My friend recommended remembering that conferences aren’t school–you can opt out of anything you want. You have agency!”
  6. Doris Brook: “When they do those pointless exercises where they make you talk to strangers in small groups to brainstorm something that will be utterly without value or application, run to the bathroom.”
  7. Eric Drumheller:“I try to set goals. I’m going to meet 5 people at each networking session. I’m going to engage 3 vendor booths to find something new. Then I’m going to go back to the hotel room to sleep it off.”
  8. Stephanie Laskey: “If you can afford it, book an extra night at the hotel. Order room service and eat all alone, basking in solitude. Gives you something to look forward to during the conference.”
  9. Julia Payson: Only communicate through tweets (quotes, retweets, appreciation to organizers). You appear super engaged and people appreciate how you are engrossed in your phone.” It is helpful to look up one a while and nod knowingly to signal to people that you are engaged in the conversation.
  10. Stacy Sorenson“If at all possible, take on a volunteer opportunity or two. I do so much better- and make authentic vs. superficial connections- when I’m being useful vs. being forced to make small talk.”
  11. Marcie Grube: I always do a google maps search of the area so I can skip a session if I need to and take a walk to a park or highly rated coffee shop! Gets you away from the conference hub bub and you can see some sights!”
  12. Edwin Goutier: “Plan high value conversations you want to have instead of trying to bounce around the room making connections at networking sessions.”
  13. Mia Hecht Ellis: “Make a goal to make 1 friend, not gather 300 business cards!
  14. Vanessa LeBourdais: “When having a convo (making small talk), ask the other person questions and focus on making them comfortable. Also just focus on one person at a time, have as deep a convo as you like and forget everyone else.”
  15. Corin Barsily GoodwinDon’t drink alcohol just to loosen up; it will lower your filters and undermine your attempts to make connections you actually want to have.”
  16. Ashley Fontaine: “Don’t agree to meet extroverts for breakfast when they genuinely say ‘let’s meet at breakfast tomorrow!’ and you get a tiny bit swept up in their enthusiasm. Isn’t it bad enough to eat lunch and dinner with all these people? Protect your coffee hour!”
  17. Kelly Joyner LeeIf affordable, stay at the hosting hotel so you can sneak up to the room if you need a break.”
  18. Melinda L. Breslin: “Quickly assess who the extroverts are, then position yourself far away from them!”
  19. Katie SchultzBypass the cocktail hour and refuse all dinner invitations, saying you need to ‘catch up on emails.’ Retire to your room to binge watch Breaking Bad on your iPad. Be reduced to tears when the crappy hotel WiFi interferes with your Breaking Bad watching. Repeat. Repeat.”
  20. Stacy Sorenson“If at all possible, take on a volunteer opportunity or two. I do so much better- and make authentic vs. superficial connections- when I’m being useful vs. being forced to make small talk.”
  21. Rachel Minnick: “Submit a proposal to be a presenter, if you’re like me and talking to 25 people is easier than talking to one.”
  22. Paul VerretteMake a game out of discombobulating the aggressively extroverted people. Shut down conversation openers with three word answers with no helpful or interesting detail. Just say shhhh and pat them on the shoulder. Introduce them to other extroverts and walk away. Give them someone else’s business cards. Ask if they have read the book Quiet.”
  23. Mike Wild“I’ve decided that every time I speak or do a panel at a conference I’m going to mention the fact that there are introverts like me in the room and that this is another way in which the traditional ways of ‘networking’ can be quite exclusive.”
  24. Ashley Fontaine: “Review the conference schedule and pick when you can take power naps in your room ahead of time.”
  25. Tracy Hall:Skip the ‘networking’ breakfasts (or whatever they choose to call them) in the mornings…you need that extra time by yourself AND your days will be looonnnggg enough without that too! Remember…you still have 8-10 hours of engaging ahead of you, so pace yourself!”
  26. Megan O’RoarkAlways be on your way to refill your tea at the tea stand. That way you can cut conversations short to be en route for tea, or intensely blowing on hot tea to be cool enough to drink, so it limits your ability to talk. More tea also = more trips to bathroom = less time to be approached.”
  27. Candice Bates Hoff“I think of conferences in the same light as fundraising events (I am in Development, not Programs): it’s about the mission of my organization, not me personally. That always helps me.”
  28. Jamie Kratz-GullicksonPlot with your toddler to have a ‘childcare emergency’ that consumes any group projects, evening dinners or breaks with fake/real phone calls.”
  29. Jenny Hansell“About 15 years I discovered the magical rule of threes in small talk: if you are talking to someone and a third person walks up and starts talking to the other person, you are allowed to leave without any excuse. Just walk away.”
  30. Kelly Taylor: “Use networking and online groups (NPHH being an excellent example) to find out who is attending. Set up a couple of phone conversations before hand. Most of us are more comfortable if we know a couple of people.”
  31. Jennifer CrandallLook for the person with purple, blue or green hair. They will be safe to talk to.”
  32. Makenzie Allen CollieFind a convenient closet to hyperventilate in.”
  33. Victoria NorthBring knitting. 1. It scares many people. 2. If you don’t want to talk, you can say that you are counting stitches and it needs your full concentration. 3. The people it attracts I’m usually willing to talk to. Either they knit, and therefore we skip dreadful small talk, or they ask a few questions and then wander off. It includes pointy sticks and scissors which can be used to drive off the overly chatty. Ask them to help you wind a ball of yarn. Here, just hold your hands like this… they will run for the hills. 5. Knitting stimulates the nerve in your hand that makes you feel relaxed. 6. Bonus – knitting actually keeps me awake in boring lectures that need to stay awake during. And it helps me focus. Something about occupying just enough of some other part of my brain…”
  34. Lisa Weiss Silverman: “If at all possible, don’t commit to anything for the day after you get home […] BUT also truly ENJOY the time you get with these people as you are likely there to learn from them and remember that most conferences only happen once per year.”
  35. Jodi LarsonWhen someone says ‘make sure to stand up when you speak, you can go one of two routes. The first is to proclaim loudly that that demand is an ableist request. The second is to just not f#@$%*! stand up. What are they going to do? Arrest you? I can’t wait for the grainy cellphone video of me being bodily dragged from the education roundtable amidst all the other middle-agers, yelling at the top of my lungs ‘you ableist m@#$%^*! are just another wing of the oppressive patriarchal machine!” [I’m not sure Jodi is actually an introvert!]
  36. Jacqueline Brennan“As often as possible, be proactive and avoid attending conferences like the plague. More earnestly though, I’m not all that old relative to my nonprofit peers, but I’ve had a harder and harder time with stimulation and scripted/inorganic activity as I’ve gotten older (two things that manifest in abundance at conferences). I’ve had frank conversations with my supervisor about conference settings not being a healthy/fruitful environment for me unless I’m staffing one. I think it’s really important for people to be able to opt out of conferences if it’s not a productive environment for them.”

Write other tips you have in the comment section. Meanwhile, if you’re planning a conference, here are a few suggestions to make it introvert-friendly:

  1. Renee Lormé-Gulbrandsen: “I have a friend who hosts parties often and always has an ‘Introverts Lounge.’ This is where I can normally track down my husband. Better than hiding in a bathroom.”
  2. Lacy Phillips: “When standing in a circle chatting make sure to take a step back and form a u instead. A closed circle will keep people from joining. A u will invite people in.”
  3. Eileen Coogan“Neighborhood Funders Group had little buttons attendees could wear. Including pronoun choices, introvert/extrovert, and many more. It was a cool and fun way to demonstrate inclusiveness. Though I think an introvert/extrovert sliding scale pin would be best so I can select where I am at any given moment.”
  4. Kathy Flaherty: “at registration people [allow people to] choose red/yellow/green stickers for their name badge to indicate how open they were to converse with people they didn’t know. I found it helpful.” Additional suggestion from Betsy Lundsten: “Put a shape in there as well. WisCon does circle/triangle/square, for people who are color-blind.”
  5. Kelly Joyner Lee: “At our one day workshop, we try to balance session options with having one high energy choice and one ‘lecture or instruction’ type choice. We have an area that people can eat lunch outside if they don’t want to Network.”
  6. Katie Moore: “Be like AFP and hold a “fundraising for introverts” breakout session which they did this year in New Orleans. Be amazed and relieved by the size of the room.”
  7. Margy Waller: ”invite some artists to design interactive/hands-on sessions that involve everyone in an easy on-ramp to connecting with others.”

Thanks again to all my colleagues for basically writing this post for me. I hope that these tips are helpful to you as you navigate the next conference and have to tell people what kind of cookie you would be if you were a cookie. (I would be a peanut butter cookie: Sometimes too sweet, falls easily apart, and some people are deathly allergic to me)

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