I’m back from Mom 2.0 Summit and I had a fantastic time. I truly did. And I say that as an introvert, which is why I thought today I would spend a little time talking about how to handle conferences if you maybe think you can’t handle conferences.
“But you’re not shy!” People say to me. “You like people! You’ll talk with anyone!” And all of that is true; I do like people and I don’t consider myself shy. Nonetheless, an introvert is someone who is sapped of energy through interpersonal interaction rather than energized by it, and so I am categorically an introvert even though I enjoy this stuff because—by the time I get home afterward—all I really want to do is sleep for a week. It takes a lot out of me.
And I made a lot of mistakes when I first started going to conferences, mostly because I felt unsure of myself and didn’t want to “miss” anything, so I thought it was worth a discussion. The fact of the matter is that now, conferences still wear me out, but I come home feeling good about the experience. And that’s kind of the point, no? Consider this your Cliff Notes on attending a conference as an introvert.
1) Room alone, or with someone you know and/or who operates similarly. Conferences are high-energy events, and you need a place where you can retreat and recharge. That means either have your own room or bunk with someone who’s not going to throw a party when you’re trying to sleep. In my case, I was extremely gratified to be able to come back at night, put on my pajamas, and watch the Olympics with the similarly-minded Susan Getgood. Some people can go-go-go for 24 hours, but most introverts can’t. It was great to have a roommate on the same wavelength, because that way I didn’t feel like I was being anti-social, but I also didn’t feel like I had to be “on” constantly.
2) Eat breakfast every day. Make sure you have some protein, too. I don’t care if you don’t eat breakfast at home. Conferences abound with carbolicious foods, and it’s easy to either eat constantly but fill up on empty calories or to “forget” to eat. Everyone does better on a good breakfast. It helps keep your energy up better than caffeine, too. (I bring gluten-free nut bars with me everywhere I go because it can be hard to get gluten-free food, but I find as a bonus it’s a great way to make sure I get a sizable protein boost regardless of what’s being served.)
3) Analyze the conference schedule and make some choices. I used to go to everything when I was at a conference, because I felt like I didn’t want to “miss” any opportunity while I was there. You know what? That can be kind of insane. If you’re at a conference to network (I was; most people are), sometimes the “thing” you need to be doing is chatting in the hall with someone. There are networking breaks built into the schedule, of course, but if there’s a session running where nothing is really calling to you, don’t be afraid to sit it out. Maybe that’s a good time for some one-on-one networking. Maybe it’s a good time to go back to your room and chill for twenty minutes. Maybe it’s a good time to go hang out in the bathroom with The Bloggess. Conferences are full of great experiences, and not all of them happen in rooms with hundreds of other people.
4) Get enough sleep. It can be tempting to accept every invitation and stay out late, but sleep is important, too. For me, if I don’t get enough sleep, I struggle the entire next day. Conferences are also a fabulous place to pick up a cold, and sleeping enough will increase your chances of making it home healthy. That said…
… 5) Bring (and take) plenty of vitamin C, zinc, and whatever else you like to help keep you from getting sick. I ended up sick this time, anyway. I blame the airlines. But I suspect I would’ve been a lot sicker if I hadn’t been taking my supplements and getting a decent amount of sleep. So it goes.
6) Sit with a different group of people at every meal and every session. It’s tempting to hang out with only the people you know, because that’s more comfortable. And I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with hanging out with folks you know and love. But by placing yourself with new faces while either eating or listening, you create a low-pressure way to interact with some new folks (hey, you can’t talk a lot while you eat or listen), and you’ll probably meet some fabulous people. If this seems too scary, start out just sitting with new folks during sessions and work up to meals.
7) Introduce yourself to people you admire. I’m reading conference recaps and seeing a lot of “I was too nervous to talk to X,” and “I wanted to meet Y, but I never worked up the courage.” What’s the worst that can happen? Don’t force yourself into a dozen social interactions that will stress you out, but if there’s one or two people you’d really love to talk to, all it takes is a, “Hi, I’m Mir. I’m a big fan of your work,” or whatever. Chances are the recipient of your admiration will be gracious. Maybe it will spark further conversation. Maybe it won’t. But you won’t know unless you try.
8 ) Always have business cards ready to give out, and hang on to the ones given to you. Don’t just thrust them at people willy-nilly, but if you’ve talked to someone, why not offer a card? The advantage of getting theirs, too, is that if you need to make a hasty exit or even if everything is perfect but you’d like to talk more at a later date, it’s easy enough to sit down later in the comfort of your office and shoot out a bunch of “It was really lovely to meet you and chat briefly, I hope we can stay in touch” emails. And then you get to conduct the following interactions over the Internet, the way God intended for introverts.
9) Get ahead on work before you go, and make peace with being behind when you leave. Do not plan to work while away. Let me say that again: DO NOT PLAN TO WORK WHILE AWAY. You’re already going to be full up, mentally, with the conference. Plan ahead and then play catch-up afterward, but if you plan to do actual work while away it will only add to your stress level. Resist!
10) Wear clothing you feel great in. Stack the deck to be your most confident self—that means that looking good will actually make you feel good. And you know I’m the queen of working in my pajamas, rocking jeans all week long, etc. But if I’m going to be Out Amongst The Professional People, I’m going to wear my cutest shoes, my most awesome business-appropriate outfit, etc. Because then I feel like I belong there, and it makes it easier to act like I belong there.
I’m not going to put this on a list, but consider it an overall cautionary note: Be yourself. Be your best self. That doesn’t mean you need false bravado, it just means the surer you are in your own skin—even as you acknowledge and honor that you maybe have limits when it comes to dealing with large groups of people—the better the connections you’ll make, and the better you’ll come away feeling about the experience. I promise.