Conference Networking for Introverts
Last week I attended the Independent Sector Conference, one of the key convenings for the nonprofit sector. The event spans four days and is jam-packed with social sector goodness; the official conference activities alone can go from 7:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night. With more than a thousand attendees, Independent Sector (IS) is a great place to network and build relationships. But it’s also the kind of event that can be grueling for introverts like me.
As much as I love meeting and learning from other people, after a couple hours of engaging I instinctively start looking for the door.
Oh Savage Chickens, you get me.
While this was my first time attending IS, it wasn’t my first time attending a conference as an introvert who finds being in groups of people for long periods of time draining, no matter how interesting and stimulating the conversation.
Over the years I’ve learned a few practices that help me manage my energy and network in ways that I enjoy:
Build in time to be alone, even if that means missing some of the content. You don’t have to go to every session, particularly if it’s a multi-day conference. You’re running a marathon, not a sprint. This was a hard thing for my little rule-following heart to accept, but I realized that managing my energy so I can be an effective relationship builder is more important than catching every single presentation.
You don’t have to mingle on their schedule. These days every conference has at least one networking reception, breakfast, or happy hour. As an introvert, these mix and mingle events are not my favorite way to meet people. But I recently realized that I don’t have to mingle on their schedule; I can set my own networking agenda.
Depending on the event, this might mean arranging meetings ahead of the conference or inviting specific people to join me for meals. It could be gathering a group of people to attend (or skip) a session together. Don’t hesitate to create your own networking spaces in order to connect with people in the ways that you prefer.
Find structured networking opportunities or create your own. One of my favorite networking activities at IS involved small group activities centered around working with an artist or art form (See our Communication Fellow Autumn’s blog post on one of those activities!).
I love structured activities where people create together or share an experience because networking isn’t the sole focus. Look for items in the conference schedule that allow you to do that or create your own opportunities. What about hosting a small game night in your hotel room? Or putting together a scavenger hunt? Structure can reduce the pressure on you to feel like you always have to be on.
You may not meet everyone. And that’s ok. There are some people who can work a room and shake everyone’s hand. It’s ok if you’re not that person. Many introverts excel at building deep relationships so use that trait to your advantage. Rather than beating yourself up for not talking to more people, try to have three or four in-depth conversations instead. You may not leave with 75 business cards but you’ll have something arguably better: several people who know you and your work well.
Pro Tip: Don't do this. It might seem a little weird.
Find an extravert and be their wingwoman or wingman. If you’re attending a conference with a friend or colleague who is the person that shakes everyone’s hand, see if it would be ok for you to check in with them from time to time when you need a moment to catch your breath. They may be happy to help make introductions to the people they’re talking to so there’s less pressure on you to initiate conversations. Use this sparingly--you also need to branch out on your own.
Push yourself. On the first day of IS, I looked at the schedule to see that on one evening there were two networking events scheduled for a total of four hours of mixing and mingling. My first thought was, “Are they trying to kill me?!” But my second thought was, “I can do this.”
I did do it, and I was glad that I did. As an introvert, your first reaction might be to avoid these parts of an event, but I would encourage you to keep in mind how valuable relationship building can be and push yourself beyond that first reaction. It may not be comfortable at first, but you’ll probably be glad you did it.
But at the same time, honor your personality and preferences. There’s a big difference between pushing yourself to be a little uncomfortable and running yourself into the ground. If you feel like your energy is fading and you just can’t talk to another person, leave. It’s ok.
I give you, and myself, permission to honor your personality and preferences and to say goodbye when you feel that it’s time to do so.
We often think of extraversion as the mode of leaders, and for a long time I had difficulty accepting that introversion is the way I’m built. Adapting extraverted settings like conferences to meet my needs using tips like the ones above has helped me realize that extraverts aren’t the only ones who can be great networkers and relationship builders.
If you’re an introvert, here are a few other resources you might enjoy:
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
- I also recently learned about the Quiet Changemaker Project, which is a learning community for introverted people working to make the world a better place.