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Introverts’ Guide to Conference Survival

April 24, 2015

If you are an introvert, you know that conferences are hell. They are also wonderful, fascinating, and stimulating – which is why they are hell. Introverts tend to become over-stimulated more easily than extroverts, especially in constantly churning crowds of strangers. Yet conferences are very rewarding, which is why we still attend them. We learn new things, stay updated about our discipline, present and teach others, and make important personal and professional connections at conferences. And, if you’re an introvert like me, you also find quiet corners, take naps, and, at any given moment, may leave the convention center and walk as far away as possible, or at least feel the urge to. So, if you’re an introvert, here are my conference survival tips.

1. Stay in the conference hotel. While cheaper accommodations can often be found and they may only be a few blocks away, nothing beats the ability to zip up the elevators back to one’s (hopefully, private) hotel room. Even a ten minute escape can sooth frazzled nerves. A forty-minute nap can re-energize me for hours. Just the quiet and stillness is a relief. So, if you can, book early and stay in the conference hotel.

2. Plan you days before you arrive. Trying to figure out where to go next when surrounded by a swirling crowd is a stressor you don’t need. Read the conference program before you travel and plug all of your seminars and workshops into your phone, including their locations. This reduces decision paralysis and frees up your brain to just enjoy the ride and absorb the information. When you plan your days, identify necessary breaks. I like to take an hour or two in the early afternoon to recharge before late afternoon or evening sessions. This is important to my wellbeing so I put it on my calendar just like a meeting.

3. Leave time around travel. Airports can be even more stressful than conferences, so don’t rush from one to the other. Fly in the night before, if you can. Leave several hours between the last session and your departing flight. If you have time to kill, find a quiet coffee shop or a park to reduce your blood pressure and cortisol levels (a stress hormone) before you tackle that next hurdle – airport security.

4. Limit your poisons. Find a dependable source of caffeine, but don’t overdo it, and limit alcohol intake. For myself, I’m allowed to breach my daily two-cup limit in order to savor that third cup of coffee in the early afternoon. I cut off caffeine at 4 o’clock. By the same token, I impose a one drink limit and usually pair alcohol with dinner. Drinking without food or too late in the evening tends to lead to poor sleep and I need all the good sleep I can get. If you can, do continue your regular exercise, yoga, meditation, or whatever routine to help counteract the poisons and stay in good physical and mental health.

'Conference Time' by Christian Senger via

‘Conference Time’ by Christian Senger via

5. Stay connected with your loved ones. These people are part of your social support system. A daily ‘good morning’ text message or nightly call or video chat helps release oxytocin, which is an anti-stress hormone. You may be away and busy, but that doesn’t mean your connections are absent. Thank you, modern technology. Likewise, if colleagues or friends are attending the conference, make time to meet up with them socially, over lunch or dinner. You can help each other unwind and reflect on the contents of the conference.

6. Spend at least some time outdoors each day. Our bodies respond to natural light (even when it’s cloudy) and greenery. A terrace, patio, or park are ideal places to check email or just sit and watch the sky change. Walking out to lunch rather than eating in the hotel (or the conference provided meal) is another good strategy.

7. Most importantly, DO talk to strangers, but know how to socialize like an introvert. You have social skills, they’re just a little different.

For example, when I’m conferencing, I like to eat dinner at the bar in local restaurants. It is not hard to strike up a conversation with other solo diners doing likewise. While at first this might seem counter-intuitive (“I’m an introvert! People are stressful and you want me to seek them out?”) it is actually a good way to have a short, but meaningful, one-on-one interaction.

Introverts are actually just as social as extroverts, we just do social differently. We like face-to-face interactions with a small number of people, often just one other person on whom we can focus. Large crowds are draining because they send our focus in a dozen different directions. By chatting with just one or two other people over the space of lunch, we remind ourselves of the value of human connection – which is why we come to conferences at all! Then we can dive back into that exhibit hall or seminar with less trepidation.

Small talk is a meaningful skill, but most people at a conference will also share a strong bond over the topic of the conference. Those deeper discussions are what introverts prefer and they’re also much easier to find at a conference than, say, a random party. Learn the right questions to ask to get people talking about what they love. This will change based on the topic of the conference. As an introvert, these conversations tend to be more meaningful to me and often energizing.

When in doubt, fake extroversion. It can be done. At this point, I am so adaptively extroverted that only those who know me well suspect I am by nature and personal preference an extreme introvert. Fake extroversion is a skill that becomes easier over time.

8. Finally, know your limits. I can manage about four days. Then I need to run away and recharge in the comfort, quiet, and solitude of my own home. I don’t feel too bad about that. It’s just me. I can absorb a lot in four days, enough to fuel my thinking for months. Afterward, don’t assume you’ll be okay to go straight back to work and dive into a busy meeting schedule. If it’s the weekend, great, but if you return on a workday plan to be a little less productive. Leave space to work from home, if you can, or don’t plan any meetings on the day you return from the conference. Take time to make notes and send emails from the comfort, and quiet, of your office. Your body and brain with thank you for it. It also helps you get the most out of the conference by planning how you’ll use what you’ve gained, rather than loosing it in a hectic work schedule.

I hope you find these tips helpful. For any extroverts reading this post, it may better help you understand and support your introverted colleagues. If anyone would like to write a counter-post for the extroverts out there, that would be lovely. For any extroverts who plan conferences, I know it’s tempting to pack every single second, but remember that a good portion of your audience just can’t be “on” for every single second. They’re going to skip out, so if you leave space in the schedule, you’ll have more control over when that happens.

Good luck at your next conference!

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