Elizabeth: Conference Tips for Introverts

intj-headAs you undoubtedly know if you are a frequent reader of this blog (or from Justine’s post Tuesday), many of the Eight Ladies will be attending the RWA National conference in New York this summer.  We have been looking forward to the event, not only to see each other again, but to learn new things, meet new people, and enhance our craft.

The other day it occurred to me that, although I had registered for the conference, booked the hotel, and made pre-conference sight-seeing plans months ago, I never actually bought the plane tickets.

My first thought after that realization was, “Yay, now I don’t have to go.”

Wait, what?

The truth of the matter is that I am most definitely an introvert.  Big crowds and busy places are very much not in my comfort zone.  That’s not to say that I haven’t had a wonderful time at past conferences – I have and have learned a lot at them – but I have to make a conscious effort to do so.  I love to travel, but hate to leave the house – a challenging combination.

I was a little torn when I made my plane-ticket realization, so I did what anyone would do (right?), I polled my friends for advice.  Here are the three options I gave them to choose from:

1. Well, if you don’t really want to go, then don’t go

2. Just book the damn plane reservation; you know you always change your mind before a trip and then have a great time.

3. Have you considered professional help?

The unanimous decision was option 2, as I knew it would be, so I booked my tickets and downloaded the RWA app on my phone to plan out my schedule.

Now, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only introvert writer out there who sometimes has to pull up her big girl pants and leave the house for a conference or other social situation.  Fortunately, one of the pages I follow on Facebook, Quiet Revolution, had a post just recently on strategies for surviving social situations.

The post, which had me at “I hate small talk with a white-hot passion”, pointed out that for many people, making it through the first five minutes of a social event can be the most challenging.  It offered some suggestions for how to get past that initial period that can apply to a wide variety of social situations, whether you are an introvert or not.

Make a plan

When attending an event, it helps to have a clear idea of why you are there. Is your goal to network with new people? Connect with friends? Learn something new? Once you know what your desired result is, you can make a plan for how you are going to accomplish it. Having a plan means you don’t walk into a crowded room and then feel uncomfortable because you are not sure where to go or what to do. For work-related social events, I often volunteer to be the team photographer. It gives me something specific to do, and makes it easier to mingle with other people without feeling trapped.  For a writing event, my goal might be to talk with three new writers about their book or to introduce myself to five new people.

Have some talking-points

For my day-job, we all have talking-points – planned discussion starters for those random instances when you find yourself in the elevator with a VP or an important colleague and need something intelligent to say. The same idea can be helpful for social situations. Having some canned questions like “what authors have you meet today?” or “which conference sessions have you found the most interesting” can be a good way to get things started. Of course, if you forget what you were planning to ask at RWA, you can always go with “what is your book about?” It’s a pretty safe bet whoever you are talking to will have an answer to that.

Arrive at the right time (for you)

Some people like to arrive at an event early, to get a feel for it before the crowds appear. This can be good if it you will be seated at tables and don’t want to be that person that wanders in late, searching for a seat among groups that have already bonded together. Others like to arrive once there is a camouflaging-crowd to mingle past. It can be a little more difficult to strike up a conversation if people are already talking in groups, but if people have had a chance to relax a bit, it can make things a little easier. Only you know which type of arrival works best for you, so figure it out and then play to your strength.

Bonus tip:  Find a Friend

Having a friend at an event can make everything easier, giving you a built in person to talk to and/or sit with.  A friend can also provide introductions to people they might know that you don’t.  I am lucky enough to have a number of people I am planning to meet at the upcoming conference, though I didn’t at the first conference I attended.  Fortunately, there were a lot of new-attendees, just like me and I saw several of them in multiple workshops, which meant when the seated events took place in the evenings, I was able to find “friendly faces” to connect with.

When it comes to social events, it can be tempting to hide in your room retreat into your comfort zone, but, as this article in the New York Times says, it can be good to move out of it a bit in order to grow.

So being slightly uncomfortable, whether or not by choice, can push us to achieve goals we never thought we could” ~ NYT Feb 11, 2011

So, introvert or not, what conference tips to you have?

13 thoughts on “Elizabeth: Conference Tips for Introverts

  1. I’m kind of curious — why do you hate small talk? I used to hate it because I didn’t know how to do it — and I still hate it when it doesn’t work right. But generally, those canned questions help provide a starting point, and give you a safe place to learn a little bit about the other person’s conversational rhythms. Stuff like the weather, where did you come in from, how was the travel, etc. You may not care to dive into the Big Talk with a stranger, but I love small talk when it provides a starting point for a relationship. Next time I meet this person, the talk can get bigger.

    One thing I learned quickly though. If someone is at a book-y conference, and is carrying around a book, it’s not always a good idea to ask “what are you reading?” unless you’ve got an hour or two to listen to a monologue, LOL.

    I think when one is sitting and waiting for a lecture or panel to begin, saying, “I’m really looking forward to this (panel).” is often a safe way to start a conversation. If the person is perverse and says, “Well, I’m not,” — LOL. I would dig out the mystery.

    I like interacting with people very much. But I’m easily exhausted, so it’s important for me to schedule down time in a dark, quiet room. Even small talk can add up.

    • Michaeline – in many ways, small talk has always felt like talking for talking’s sake to me. It’s not that I can’t do it or that it’s not a way to learn a little about who you are talking with, but it’s not something I eagerly look forward to. Small talk in a my work environment has it’s own special challenges, as it is much more constrained and you have to be fairly careful about what you do and don’t say.

  2. I find “go through a gruelling Master’s Certificate program and then hang out with the other survivors” to be an excellent strategy! Also, because I’m infinitely curious, I’m always interested in what others are writing/doing.

    • Jeanne – yes, hanging out with other “survivors” is a great strategy and being curious can make conversing a much more rewarding process.

  3. I’m an introvert who can act like an extrovert because for a short time in my misspent youth, I was a reporter at a German-language newspaper. I had a lot of experience using German, but my spoken language proficiency was not that good, and every interview was complicated by my shyness.

    One day my editor told me to go to an event where the German ambassador to the U.S. was giving a speech and ask him at least one question. When I got there, the hall was full of hundreds of people. My anxiety was so intense, I thought I might have a heart attack. I knew I’d screw up the grammar and disgrace myself and the newspaper I represented.

    When the question period was almost over, I decided that I probably wouldn’t actually die of anxiety, but my editor would kill me if I didn’t do what he said—and there were worse things in life than making an absolute fool of myself, so I raised my hand and asked a question. And the German ambassador answered it and then in the mingling period afterward singled me out for a longer conversation in English, which just shows you how kind even important people can be to terrified kids. And ever since I’ve been able to handle crowds, so that was a big upside.

    So the point of this endless story of self is that 1) being socially uncomfortable won’t kill you and probably is good for you, 2) practice makes perfect for any skill you want to acquire, and 3) many people are nice, and helping you through a difficult social situation makes their life easier, too (nobody wants to watch you suffer), as well as makes you a friend for life.

    At RWA, I think it helps to remember that probably everybody there is more or less an introvert—we’re all writers, and isn’t sitting alone in a dark room pretty much how we like to spend our time? So everyone’s in the same boat, if we can just remember that. All your tips for managing the conference even if you’re an introvert are terrific, Elizabeth! And I hope and expect we’ll all have a great time.

    • Kay – I too am an introvert that can act like an extrovert when necessary, though I can’t credit that to being a reporter for a German language newspaper. 🙂 Mostly, my day job has made it necessary for me to do so.

      You’re right too, that many of the attendees will be introverts as well and there are likely to be any number of folks that would love to talk with us but may not know quite how to get started. I definitely recall that the people were all very welcoming at that first conference I attended. I’m sure that will be the case this time around as well.

    • (-: That’s heart-warming, Kay! People are often so very, very kind when you give them a chance. (-: And a German-language newspaper! I want to talk to you sometime about that. I know a German journalist who worked for a paper here in Japan. Something I would have loved to do . . . .

  4. As a fellow INTJ, I am right there with you Elizabeth. I most definitely do NOT share a room with a fellow conference attendee. I am a little worried this year because my daughter is coming. Sharing a room with a family member falls into a different category, but sometimes I need to be away from my family, too. Complete alone time is a requirement for me. I’m hoping The Girl Child makes some evening plans so that I can have some of that complete alone time.

    • Michille, I’m with you on the alone time requirement in order to recharge. Conferences generally have an amazing amount of stuff going on, plus you are learning, networking,etc., which can take it’s toll. It’s good to have some down time scheduled amidst all of the activity.

  5. Elizabeth, I’m glad we didn’t lose you! If you get really stressed and need quiet time in the room, I can go for a long time without speaking. We could even come up with a code – ‘sock on the doorknob means breakdown in progress, move quietly and do not speak’.

    My tale of woe with RWA Nationals is that because they are in July, they usually fall right around the time of my FIL’s birthday, which almost always involves a party and required attendance. The year the conference was in DC, I didn’t even stay for the Sat night awards. My husband picked me up and we drove straight to PA and a large party that went on well into the night – exhausting in the best of times, damn near impossible after spending 4 days with thousands of people. We’ll all have to be a support system for each other. A very, very quiet support system :-).

    • Nancy, that sounds exhausting. The first RWA conference I went to was in New York a few years back. I went from that directly to three weeks at Oxford (another brand new experience). After four total weeks of having to be sociable and engaging (or at least try to be), I couldn’t wait to get back home to peace and quiet, even though they were both great experiences.

  6. Pingback: Jilly: Lending a Hand | Eight Ladies Writing

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