How to Attend Conferences as an Introvert

Adam DuVander
Adam DuVander / December 22, 2016

How many introverted programmers does it take to tell a light bulb joke? One. It does not have to be a group activity, and the other can check for off-by-one errors.

In addition to being witty, this programming joke also represents the classic stereotype of the introverted programmer. It might not be universally true, but many programmers do see themselves as introverts–people who get their energy from silence and alone time, rather than from interactions with others, as extroverts tend to thrive on. As psychologist Timo Gnambs found:

As for the more popular stereotypes, the only one that held any water was the expectation of introversion: people with lower extroversion had higher programming scores.

And yet, we all know there are great benefits to being amongst groups of people, especially at conferences where the whole point is to be around others. That’s where knowledge is shared, breakthroughs are made, and deals are done. If you want to take part, you need to shake hands and have conversations with people you don’t know very well—or at all.

Even amongst a group of developer evangelists–arguably the most outgoing of programmer sorts–I often find many are quick to identify as introverts. SendGrid’s first developer evangelist, Brandon West, is a mix of introvert and extrovert. He warns against declaring yourself one or the other: “It's a gradient and we all move along it. It’s a snapshot of your current tendencies.” So, you could have both introvert and extrovert qualities.

Introvert and extrovert spectrum

Classically, the distinction between the two involved how you feel in groups or after the fact. If you’re energized by the interactions, you’re more extroverted. If you’re drained, you’re more introverted. The yardstick is how interaction with other people either energizes you or depletes your energy.

Since the latter is common with programmers, here are some ideas to harness that part of you that is extroverted–or to pace yourself when you attend conferences or events and don't feel like interacting with anyone else at all.

Arm Yourself with Talking Points

Personal interactions can be less draining if you remove other stresses. If feeling out of place or unprepared makes you retreat, try gearing up with some pre-event research.

Choose events or sessions that interest you. While that advice may sound simplistic, you’d be surprised how often people end up at events they think they should attend. Even if the event has been chosen for you, the sessions where you focus your energy are likely up to you. Go to the talk on the technology you know well, so you’ll be able to strike up conversations. Or, choose something you’re genuinely curious about, even if you don’t know much about it. You’ll ask good questions (and speakers love that).

Research who you want to talk to. Some events publish an attendee list, so you can scope people out ahead of time. At a minimum you can usually find out who is speaking or search Twitter for attendees tweeting their excitement or chronicling their travel. Once you find individuals, see what they’re working on or interested in. Where are they from? Even small talk like local weather or sports can get you over the initial awkwardness and into a great conversation.

Not sure who to meet? Ask around! Hit up well-connected friends and see who they recommend you meet. Even if you think your network is small, the six degree rule makes it likely you can find a connection. The best part is this method has a built in conversation starter: talk about your mutual friend.

Safely Consume Just Enough Alcohol

Even if you know what to talk about, you may still be nervous around new people. For those who drink alcohol, a little liquid courage goes a long way.

Don’t over-do the drinks. If you’re memorizing rhymes like “beer before liquor,” you’re already on the wrong track. One–maybe two–drinks is sufficient to calm the nerves of most people. Holding a drink can be more comfortable, but it doesn’t have to be alcoholic every time. Alternate water, or look like a serious cocktail aficionado with a soda water and bitters–with dilution it's essentially alcohol free, but looks fancy.

Stand by the bar. This gem comes from Zapier CEO Wade Foster. You’re guaranteed a steady stream of conversations when you’re next to the most popular spot in the room. I tried this at a recent event and found it really easy to strike up conversations. You can take on a role of volunteer host, informing people what choices they’ll have at the front of the line. And if you’ve tried the IPA, for example, let them know what you think (it’s probably too hoppy for me).

Give Yourself an Objective

Remember in elementary school when you could earn gold star stickers? You can set up similar objectives for yourself at events, and it doesn’t need to feel sleazy. The classic “collect 10 business cards” may not be what motivates you. Here are some better ideas.

See how much you can give. In his 2013 book, Give and Take, Adam Grant shares research that suggests those who help others benefit in the long run. In professional settings, everyone is either a giver, matcher, or taker, the labels Grant uses to describe the amount of value someone adds or extracts. In the book, he unpacks ten years of data and makes the case that givers win in the long run. When you attend a conference, go into every conversation with the goal to help the other person. You probably have the knowledge or introduction they need if you listen. And you might eventually benefit from this approach.

Be a speaker or volunteer. Events are always on the lookout for great speakers and volunteers. This one takes some preparation well in advance and requires a giving attitude. Either of the roles will set up your experience with a structure of times and places that you’re needed. Amazon Technical Evangelist Greg Bulmash advocates for volunteering because “it forces you to meet new people and having some sort of official status makes you feel less awkward,” according to Greg. It also gives you a greater connection to the event, which can build your confidence. “How are you enjoying the conference?” is a perfectly reasonable question for a volunteer or speaker to ask, and the attendee will know you care about the answer. The best way to get started as either a speaker or volunteer: ask the organizers what they need.

Create an attendee survey. Even without researching people to meet, you can still conjure substantive conversation. With a single canned question or a short verbal survey, you can give yourself the objective of hearing more about the audience. I have been on the receiving end of several of these. It’s rarely awkward and often sparks a longer discussion. Make the questions related to something you care about and you may find it easier to start conversations. You can even tell people you’re performing a survey. It’s a good way to work the room and could even help you qualify who you want to have deeper conversations with (though you might keep that objective a secret).

Bring an eye-catching object. If you’d rather avoid attention, this one isn’t for you. A bright, blinking toy, for example, can draw people to you. This one is especially useful if you are in an expo hall booth, but can also work in other situations. Conversations will likely begin talking about the object, but can easily move into other topics.

Make Yourself Comfortable

All of the ideas, tactics, and advice in this post are really about being comfortable, so you can get the most out of events. You should acknowledge both what you know you need and what you know you’re capable of.

Bring a friend. Regardless of where your friend is on the introvert-extrovert spectrum, some company at the event will help. At a minimum, someone you already know should relax you. Also, games like the survey can be even more fun with a companion. I have used this one and found myself totally comfortable with another person there because I get out of my own head. One important caveat to this one: if you bring a pal, agree beforehand that you won’t spend the whole time chatting one-on-one, because that defeats the whole purpose of attending the event.

Plan your decompression. Those that tend toward introversion need to recharge with alone time. Work those breaks into your schedule beforehand and you’ll be more likely to push yourself through the time when you need to be “on.” Also, give yourself permission to take unscheduled breaks. Only you know the difference between when you genuinely need a break, and when you’re just nervous or uncertain. This was especially important to Developer Evangelist Taylor Barnett: “I think once I understood that an introvert can totally be social and that it is more about how you recharge, I gained a lot of control over how I be an active participant in communities.”

Meeting new people brings with it tremendous advantages. You’ll hear fresh perspectives, spark ideas, and potentially advance your career. These gains should not be restricted to people who happen to be farther toward the extrovert end of the scale.

Remember that we all are capable of these great interactions, it just takes varying amounts of effort. With preparation, help of others, and maybe a few tricks, an introvert can experience a fantastic conference or event.

Once you’ve decompressed from your next outing, reach out on Twitter and let me know how it went.

Conferences may be the best place to make connections, but they're not the only way to stay up-to-date on tech. Here are the best sites and resources for that.

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