The Introverted Nerd’s Conference Survival Guide

March 12, 2009

ConferencePulling your gaze from your shoes, making eye contact with an ugly bag of mostly water, and communicating via spoken word is a much more difficult undertaking for the introverted nerd than it is for a normal person. Extroverts feed off of social interactions and conversation; it energizes and inspires them. On the other hand, socializing taxes introverts to the point that when all's said and done, they're wrung dry.

This makes attending conferences--what with their all-day sessions, nighttime social events, and sharing a hotel room--a serious mental drain on the introverted nerd. Since I'm one of the many introverted nerds heading to the South by Southwest Interactive festival this weekend, I've got a few conference survival tactics to share.

First, let me say to my fellow introverts: conferences are the time to push your limits and get out of your shell. If you do that and it's a good conference, you won't regret it. Even though it can be uncomfortable at first, magic happens when the right humans connect face to face (no matter how good your internet skillz are).

Now that that's out of the way, here are a few things I do to make life at conferences a little easier on my inner introvert.

Room with the right person. The last thing an introvert wants to do is worry about awkwardness or lack of privacy back at the hotel room after a long day of forced extroversion. If you can't get a room for yourself, find a roommate you're close with, someone you trust, someone who understands your freaky-deaky-geeky introversion. I hit the jackpot in this department. My going-on-three-years-now SXSW roomie is a long-distance BFF who totally gets me, and it's made a world of difference in my conference experience.

Leave room in your schedule for brief escapes. Yes, mark down every session you're interested in attending, and plan to meet up with people you like, but leave your schedule as flexible as possible to reduce stress and allow yourself a break if you need it. If you commit to every meal, every party, every meetup, by day two you'll want to crawl under the covers back at your hotel room and cry. At almost every conference I attend, at some point I sneak back to the luxuriously empty hotel room to recharge my introverted batteries for an hour or two. Give yourself permission and the schedule flexibility to escape, take a nap, stare out the window, or get someplace alone to take notes, collect your thoughts, and steel yourself for the next socializing marathon.

Talk to everyone, BUT minimize time with the bores and maximize time with interesting people. Introverts are just as shy about getting out of conversations as they are about getting into them. While you'll meet all sorts of fabulous people you wish you could talk to for hours, there are just as many dolts who will chew your ear off endlessly and drain you of all patience for humankind. Don't waste your time on these vampires. Figure out a way to escape from conversations you're not enjoying and upgrade to better ones--stat.

Put your trusted conference buddy on speed dial. At some point during the conference you will find yourself wandering the hallways alone, totally overwhelmed, and not sure where to go next. This is when you grab your cell phone and call your conference buddy, your pal who will say "Meet me here, we're going to get lunch in 10" and break you out of your funk. Bonus points if this person is an extrovert, because she'll carry the conversation and give you a break for a bit.

This advice probably sounds extreme to the normal and extroverted folks out there, but seriously: being an introvert in a performative world is not easy. My introversion means that when I'm in a room with other people for more than a few hours, I will go to the restroom not because I have to go, but just to be alone for a few minutes. It means that a lunch date with an acquaintance doubles the energy I need to muster for the day. It means that any kind of public speaking takes several days to work up to, and 48 hours of recovery time afterward. Nuts, right? Still, we introverts are worth getting to know even if you have to do a little extra work along the way.

For more, check out this excellent Atlantic article on the care and feeding of your inner introvert (or your introverted loved one).

Then go forth and enjoy your conference. (But don't forget to give yourself a day or two to recuperate when you get home.)

Photo by ▌ÇP▐.

These are great tips, Gina!

One thing I find helpful for shorter events is to intentionally identify my “home base”. I will find a spot at a table or a chair in a corner to retreat to when I need a break from the action. Sometimes just knowing I have a spot to step away to is enough of a pressure release that I don’t need to actually use it.

Mar 12 09 at 5:42 am

“Figure out a way to escape from conversations you’re not enjoying and upgrade to better ones–stat.”

I’d love to see a post on this skill alone!

Excellent advice, and a link to one of my favorite articles ever. One more suggestion: volunteer to help with conference tasks (sign in, set-up, whatever.) This is especially useful if you don’t know anyone else there; it gives you a role to settle into, and automatic introductions.

Gah, I used to hate the anxiety that conferences incited, no matter how much I enjoyed the learning, the people, the challenges…

Sharon Brogan
Mar 12 09 at 8:48 am

Great post. I used to travel a lot on business, and go to a lot of conference. For about the first seven years I was doing that, I’d stay over until Saturday afternoon. I’d retreat into my hotel room Friday evening, order a room service dinner, and luxuriate in lovely isolated splendor, watching movies on the hotel TV and noodling around on (pre-Internet) online services. I’d hang the do-not-disturb sign on the door and not see *anyone* from before dinner Friday to a little after lunch on Saturday, when I’d emerge from my cave and fly honme.

Mitch Wagner [+7]
Mar 12 09 at 2:13 pm

As a dyed-in-the-wool INT[J|P], I can attest wholeheartedly to how “horrible” conferences and group events are… but also how rewarding they can (sometimes) be.

The “care and feeding of your introvert” article is a classic and also very true. I made my former boss (an “E” something, with the “E” in 18 point bold italic underline and blink) read it as a way to understand me a little better.

My current motto is “I’m not anti-social, I just don’t like people.”

four12 [+1]
Mar 12 09 at 2:50 pm

I never thought about how an introvert would have just as hard a time exiting a conversation as entering one. Very good perspective.

Here’s a tip from me to the world: The next time you want to pull the rip cord on a conversation, just pretend that you are about to pee your pants. It works every time…but might not get you the job. Hmmm; is that an extrovert tactic? :)

Troy Malone [+8]
Mar 13 09 at 8:27 am

All excellent tips. Being in sales and sales management for too long to mention, as an INTJ I’ve found several ways to minimize the time with bores and move on to find more interesting conversations. I find that even extroverts have a difficult time breaking lose from the grip of these as well. I’ve never given much thought to the affect of just saying, “Well, I promised so and so I would meet up with them so I need to find them, (or I need to see if they came in with …) so excuse me for now.” It’s never stated in a rude manner, there’s no need for that. What I am sorry for is on occasion after the break away, “Let’s catch up another time.” Some people take that seriously so I’ve dropped it from my exit lines.

I know my readers will love your post so thanks so much!

Patricia Weber
Business Sales Accelerator Coach for Introverts, Shy and Reluctant
Blogging Business Sales Ideas for Introverts, Shy and Reluctant

Mar 13 09 at 10:10 am

Sometimes I don’t just pretend — I do it. This not only ends the current conversation, but prevents all future conversations with that person and anyone in the immediate vicinity.

Mitch Wagner [+7]
Mar 13 09 at 11:14 am

The best way to get out of a conversation (this is platinum from a conversational maestro I once met)

“I’d like to go talk to those people over there. Come with me.”

Why this is the most tactful way – if they do not want to go – they will politely excuse themselves. If they do want to go, you have a partner in mingling.

Tell them what you want to do, let them decide.

Do not, do not – say “Nice meeting you” – you could make a temporary enemy if they feel like you are ditching them (and you very well may be)

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Mar 13 09 at 3:56 pm

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