Surviving Conferences as an Introvert

I just spent an amazing week at Salesforce Connections. I’ve been to (and spoken at) Connections several times over the years, in addition to many other conferences. This one was a little different. Salesforce asked me to be interviewed about Women of Email during the keynote, and they presented me with the Trailblazer Golden Hoodie while I was onstage. If you didn’t know…. this is A. Thing.

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People who only know me from Twitter and seeing me onstage probably think I’m more outgoing than I actually am. But the truth is – while I love and thrive on being surrounded by other #emailgeeks, it doesn’t change the fact that I find crowds, noise and small talk incredibly overwhelming. I do much better in small groups of people I have something in common with. That’s one of the things I like about meeting people at email events – we can skip right past the “what’s email marketing?” part of the conversation and get straight to the good stuff.

There’s a certain rush to being on stage and talking about something you’re passionate about. I’ve been fortunate to get to do it a lot. But for the hour or two after I get off stage (and after I’ve answered questions to the inevitable line of people who run up to me after the session ends), I usually need to go hide in the speakers lounge, and catch up on any tweets that came through while I was on stage, get my heart rate down, drink some tea, and just breathe. It’s an adrenaline rush, but I can’t keep it up all day. I need time to get back to normal. So if you see me beelining in the direction of the speakers lounge–or bathroom– after I’m on stage, please let me go. You can find me later, or connect on Twitter. I’m much more fun to talk to when I’ve had a chance to recharge, I promise.

Since I’ve been to so many conferences as a speaker and as an attendee (and introvert), I’ve developed some survival skills I think might be helpful for other people like me, whether you’re attending to learn about email or being featured on the keynote.

  1. Take it all in, but focus your time on the things that are important to you

Look at the schedule in advance and pick/register for sessions you want to go to. At the larger events, they may fill up fast. When I’m attending a conference, I gravitate toward the more hands-on sessions that’ll help me use technology I need for my job. I also really like seeing case studies of people doing interesting things that I want to do.

Conferences are about networking, and sometimes it’s more beneficial to spend an hour talking to someone who has a job similar to yours than it is to attend every session. Email jobs are weird, and at times it can feel like you’re the only one who knows what you’re going through. But not at email conferences. You meet other people who have done the same work, and may have found solutions to technical problems you never would have thought of. And many of them are more than willing to talk about it. Find those people. It may mean talking to a lot of people to find the one, which can be hard as an introvert. You also sometimes run the risk of getting stuck in a boring conversation. If you’re bored or just want to end a conversation, it’s always okay to say, “It’s been so great talking to you, but I’ve got to run to [a meeting, a session, a work call, whatever]. Let’s connect on Linkedin. Here’s my card.” You don’t have to sit there and pretend to listen to a sales pitch you’re not interested in. It’s better for everyone involved if you don’t, because then the other person can move on to other people who might actually be interested.

2. There are lots of different ways to connect with people.

Are you overwhelmed with requests to meet up? Get creative! You don’t have to go for a drink or a meal with everyone, and you don’t need to book up every single night for socializing and networking (but if that’s your thing – go for it). It’s also okay to decline meeting with people if you don’t want to or don’t have time. Everyone knows that conferences get busy. They’ll understand.

I’ve had conferences where there were a lot of people I knew who wanted to meet and catch up, but I was booked solid. So I got creative – one time I had 45 minutes between sessions, and really wanted to get Starbucks, but that was the only window of time I could catch up with a friend. The Starbucks line was extremely long and would’ve taken most of the 45 minutes. So the friend and I caught up while we were waiting in line, then just brought our lattes to our next sessions.

Another way to spend time with people you want to see is to plan to attend sessions together. There’s usually some downtime waiting in line or waiting for the session to start once you sit down. That’s a great time to catch up with someone. And then as a bonus – after the session, you have something new to talk about with them. Another benefit of that is that there are clear starting and ending points to the time, so you’re less likely to have someone monopolize your entire day.

3. Self care is important.

Conferences can be tough. You’re traveling, walking a lot more than you normally might, and you might be in a totally different time zone. I struggle with anything on the west coast because I wake up at 4 AM and have trouble sleeping. And while in many cases, you’ll be fed well with fancy dinners and cocktail parties and free boxed lunches, the overindulgence can leave you feeling terrible physically.

My advice there is: do what you need to do to take care of yourself. For me, that means making sure that I’m eating fruit and yogurt at breakfast instead of sugary pastries (even if they look amazing), and I try to pick the salad option for lunch if I can. Carry a water bottle and refill it constantly. If working out makes you feel normal and happy – work out at your hotel gym, or sign up for a boutique class where you are.

This next one is a personal choice that I’ve made, and I recognize that it might not work for everyone – but I don’t drink at conferences, events, or much at all in general. I don’t actually enjoy alcohol, and my body usually reacts badly when alcohol is paired with sleep deprivation, fancy meals, and exhaustion. At events, I’m usually sipping a seltzer with lime or maybe a ginger ale or a water. When I stopped drinking at events, I thought I would need an excuse or explanation about it, but it turns out — I don’t. Hopefully, most people will be understanding and not try to pressure you into drinking if you don’t want to, especially in professional situations. There are a million reasons why someone would choose not to drink, and people should respect that. The few times people have given me a hard time about it or offered me drinks multiple times, I’ve demurred with a simple “I’m speaking tomorrow morning and don’t want to be hungover,” “Medical reasons,” or an even simpler “No thank you.” Anyone who keeps pushing after that is being a jerk.

Another form of self care at conferences is knowing yourself and choosing to spend your evenings how you want to. Depending on your role, there may be some unavoidable dinners or meetings, but it’s completely okay to decline parties. I do it all the time, and make plans (even if the plans are only with myself) to do something else I’d rather do. I know that after a long day of walking around and talking all day, I might not feel up to going to a party (where the main activity is…drinking) or a concert (where I likely don’t even know the band). If you would prefer to spend the evening in your hotel room Skyping with your family and ordering room service – do that. A few years ago I started packing a Sephora sheet mask and a Lush bath bomb when I go on work trips, and treating myself to a relaxing evening after a long day. If you are open to doing something – it doesn’t have to be the official events. Meet up with a friend who lives in town, go see a local museum or theatre production, or get some retail therapy if you want. I bought a Hamilton ticket for this week and got to spend three hours quietly enjoying one of the best musicals of all time instead of yelling over loud music. That worked perfectly for me.

4. My last piece of advice? Do it again every chance you get.

Conferences are a valuable tool for your career. I would not be where I am professionally without them. I’ve met people, learned about email technology and strategy, gained confidence as a speaker, and traveled to cities I probably never would have otherwise. It can be stressful and exhausting, but it’s usually worth it.

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One thought on “Surviving Conferences as an Introvert

  1. Fabulous advice and really well presented. I met you at an email conference years ago and was struck by how you handled the conference with your introverted-self. I’ll take your advice to heart. Thanks!

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