How to get the best from conferences
You don’t have to go against your personality to get value from networking events
If we were more willing to go to a conference feeling entitled to take the recharge breaks we need, the entire experience would be more comfortable
The good news is that you don’t have to go against the grain of your own personality to get value from conferences and other networking events. For some practical advice on the best ways to handle conferences as an introvert, we turned to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and co-founder of Quiet Revolution. An edited version of our conversation follows.
Q: What’s your advice for introverts who dread attending conferences at all?
A: When people think of attending a conference, they imagine three days of endless small talk, which is most people’s idea of hell – extroverts included. There’s so much pressure to make the most of it, and to meet as many new people as you can. But that’s not for everybody.
Most people – introverts and extroverts, included – need time to recharge in their hotel rooms, but many of us don’t feel comfortable doing that. If we were more willing to go to a conference feeling entitled to take the recharge breaks we need, the entire experience would be more comfortable.
Q: How do you break the ice with complete strangers in a way that feels authentic and natural?
A: Go in armed with a few conversation-starting questions. Maybe they relate to the content of the speech you just heard, or to something more personal. Think about what those questions are in advance so that you’re not trying to think them up on the spot.
Also, one thing people may not realise – especially introverts – is that it’s so much easier to attend a conference if you’re one of the speakers, because everyone’s heard your talk, and now you immediately have something to talk about with everyone in the room. They already know you.
You can even take on a small role like moderating a panel where you don’t have to have the answers; you just have to ask the questions. Or, you can be the person who introduces one of the speakers, just reading a bio.
Of course, this isn’t possible at every conference. But, you’re probably only going to attend a few conferences a year, so think strategically about ones where you can play an active role, get out of your comfort zone and ultimately make your networking easier. You’ll get so much more bang for your buck this way.
Q: What if the prospect of public speaking fills you with horror?
A: There are a few things that can help. First, know that you’re not alone – millions of people feel the same way. But it’s worth figuring out how to overcome the fear, because it’s going to come up again and again in your career. Enrol in a programme like Toastmasters so you get more accustomed to the feeling of speaking. This advice isn’t for everyone. Take it when you’re ready. But, I give it from personal experience. I used to dread speaking. But now I attend so many conferences and have found that the networking aspects are a thousand times more interesting and easier than they used to be when I’ve been a speaker, because there’s not so much small talk any more – we can just dive right into more interesting things. – Copyright Harvard Business Review 2015 Dana Rousmaniere is managing editor of HBR’s Insight Centers