I don’t usually count conference attendance among the things we typically make a point of preparing for ahead of time. We prepare for our exams, speaking engagements, and even tough conversations…but not conferences. A conference is a thing you register for, and later, show up for.
But you can totally prepare for a conference! Especially if, like me, you’re an introvert who experiences anxiety around large gatherings and social events. Whether you’re nervous about the professional image you project, getting the most out of the event and its networking opportunities, or just want to avoid feeling lost in a crowd and unsure of what to do with yourself, conference prep is a real thing and you’re not weird for taking the time you need to get ready.
Here are some introvert-friendly ways to help you get the most out of your next conference:
Before the Conference
Ask yourself, what are your goals going into the conference? Do you want to share your expertise and trade insights with your peers? Do you want to emerge with at least one good job lead? Have a conversation with at least 3 people whose careers you admire? Promote your business? Develop a connection with at least one person you find interesting? Know exactly what you want to get out of the event and what your expectations are so you can go in with a plan.
Similarly, think about what you plan to do with your experience at the conference. What are your takeaways? Do you want to create any deliverables, like a blog post summing up your experience, or a brief presentation to your boss to report on why it was valuable so she’ll send you again next year? If you have a clear idea of what you’d like to achieve after the conference, you’ll have a better sense of purpose at the event.
As best you can, find out who’s going to be there and who you’re most interested to meet. If social media information is provided in the conference materials, consider reaching out to any interesting attendees or speakers on LinkedIn or Twitter. If you can establish a connection with a few people ahead of time, you’ll thank yourself later when you’re standing in a sea of people and able to identify a few friendly faces. It’s much easier to begin a conversation when you can say, “Oh, I think we’re already following each other on Twitter. Your tweet about sloths was hilarious!”
During the Conference
Have a brief version of your story ready. If, like me, you get anxious talking about yourself, it helps to have something prepared. Sort of like your elevator pitch, except you’re not pitching yourself. Rather, you’re telling your story. Whenever someone asks you, “So what do you do?” Or “What brings you to the conference?”, this is where your story comes in. As an example, here’s a story script I used recently at a conference:
I’m a writer, and I handle content creation and strategy on the Education team at ActiveCampaign, a tech startup in Chicago. I’m pretty happy with my career right now, and aside from making more money, I’m not sure what I want to pursue next! I came to the conference to get some new ideas and perspective, and to see if I can get closer to identifying a 5 year plan that works for me.
Find other ways to contribute. I’m always impressed by my more extroverted peers who never fail to ask a lot of smart questions during Q & A sessions and offer insightful opinions in discussions. Out of a strong desire to be seen as a contributor, I’ve definitely pressured myself to keep up with them in the past. Problem is, off the cuff discussion just doesn’t work for me. I usually need more time to process my thoughts on a topic before I feel ready to converse about it. Fortunately, there are other ways to make your mark! Maybe you’re not the loudest person in the room because you’re focused instead on taking beautiful, meticulous notes to share with other conference attendees. Or perhaps your strong suit is photography or social media, and you’d prefer to offer your thoughts and photos online to start a discussion there. Or maybe you’re really good at finding the best places to eat wherever you go, and lead everyone to an amazing dinner every night.
Know what you’d like to talk to people about. What kind of conversations do you want to have? Maybe you’re dealing with a particular problem in your life or career and would be interested in hearing others’ advice. Or maybe you just love talking about productivity hacks, or coding, or all the cats you’re following on Instagram. Whatever your preferred topics, have them handy in your mind. Then, actually let people know what you’re interested in talking about. To a group you can say something like, “I just went through a big career transition, so I’m full of advice on that topic if anyone would like to talk.”
Focus on having more one-on-one conversations. I’ve found that holding a conversation with one person at a time is far more rewarding than trying to keep up with the large group discussion that’s really being run by one or two or three people at most. One-on-one, it’s easier to ask questions and have a conversation that is both coherent and meaningful. I find this to be a better way to build solid and lasting connections with the people I meet at conferences.
To summarize, it’s a trial and error process. Try a few different approaches and see what works best for you.
It’s dumb to expect we should all just show up and automatically be good at conferencing. Some of us are in fact very good at it, but those of us who are not shouldn’t feel weird about taking time in advance to set ourselves up for success.