How to Design a Conference Introverts will Love

How to Design a Conference Introverts will LoveAs an introvert, I know the excitement of attending a conference is often tempered by the anxiety of knowing I will likely be out of my comfort zone on more than one occasion. Having attended everything from corporate sales meetings to doctor’s conferences in my marketing days, to social media and entrepreneurial conferences most recently, I thought I’d share some insights on how to design a conference that will keep introverts in their comfort zone, thus making them more likely to come back next year!

1. Have a Chief Relationship Officer

I play this role at CEO Connection, introducing and connecting members to each other so that they can have meaningful conversations that benefit their businesses. If I was designing a conference I would have a CRO in charge of connecting people prior to the event so that the value of the event would not only skyrocket, but to give a more personal touch to each person’s conference experience.

Think of a CRO, in this case, as an executive-level concierge. This person would create easily accessible lists of attendees by location, industry, title, role, etc…so that it would be easy for attendees to identify others they would most like to meet while they’re at the conference. The CRO would be available to make introductions and would be actively looking for ways to connect people who can be of help to each other.

The CRO would be highly visible at conference check-in, getting to know people and continuing to discover ways they can heighten participants’ networking experiences, and would be clearly designated as the go-to person for attendees during the conference. This takes the pressure off of the conference organizer who is usually meeting with speakers and cannot fully focus on making introductions throughout the event.

The benefit of this CRO role to introverts is it helps take the pressure off them to “put themselves out there” publicly. By making it easy for them to ask the CRO to introduce them to a few people, they stay in their comfort zone but also get the benefit of making targeted connections that will be valuable for their business and increase the ROI of the conference.

2. Think strategically about session seating

One of the reasons I love the SOBCon Conference is Founders Liz Strauss and Terry St. Marie hold in in a setting with very small tables. Typically at their event I am seated with, at most, four other people, and the rectangular tables are somewhat thin so we’re relatively close to each other and can easily have an intense, thoughtful conversation. Now, while introverts prefer to be alone or in small groups with one or two other people, being in a group of five is actually considered “small” for a conference.

Small groups make it easier for introverts to stay in their comfort zone of ideas. It’s easier to share ideas at a small table with four other people than at the typical table you find in a hotel ballroom that’s designed for a wedding dinner with 10 people per table. In that type of setting, conversations are not easily facilitated with the whole table, and thus tend to break down, limiting the value.

If you have a conference in which small-group conversations are going to play an essential role, it’s critical to make sure that the tables facilitate a strong sharing of ideas. With introverts in mind, I would make the tables as small as possible, and then watch how the feedback on the value of those conversations rises dramatically!

3. Think strategically about networking settings

Just as I would make it easier during conference sessions for introverts to be in small groups, I would facilitate this during networking events by making sure there is seating that encourages small groups to form.  While you’ll likely want some wide, open space in the middle of the event facility for extroverts to mingle, try to arrange seating on the perimeter of the venue that is grouped in two’s to fours. This is where your introverts will gravitate, and by making them comfortable you’ll subconsciously be scoring points with these attendees.

4.  Plan your agenda wisely

It’s natural for conference organizers to want to squeeze as many activities into their event as possible. Unfortunately, this can backfire with introverts who then feel “guilty” if they don’t want to attend everything. A critical point about introverts that conference organizers must recognize is this: introverts get their energy from their “inner world” of ideas, and are drained of energy when they’re in the “outer world” of people.

Thus, you want to give introverts the opportunity to take breaks so they can re-energize without missing important elements of the event. My recommendation is to have a 30 minute break during the afternoon to give your introverts enough time to recharge. While fifteen minute breaks can work in the morning, by the afternoon there is a higher need for time to recharge.

I would also try to schedule a minimum 90-minute break between the end of the day’s sessions and any evening activities. This gives introverts time to rejuvenate while our extroverted colleagues may meet spontaneously on their own.

5. Think about introverts when designing meal experiences

Keeping in mind that introverts are most comfortable in groups of two to four but generally prefer to be alone or with one or two others, try to provide breakfast and lunch tables that offer this environment. MarketingProfs and the Content Marketing Institute have done this beautifully at their events with small, high-top breakfast tables in the exhibitor rooms that encourage small groups of people to gather but to do so while standing, so it’s easy to “excuse yourself” if the conversation begins to lag and to also watch for when exhibits are not crowded.

Dinner is a critical networking opportunity and the ideal opportunity for business relationships to form. Thus, I would put a real emphasis on ensuring that attendees are pleased with their dining arrangements. This is where the CRO can play an important role.

While extroverts will likely be content to get a large group together on a moment’s notice, this causes a lot of anxiety for introverts. The CRO can arrange for groups of five to eight to sign up for dinner reservations that have been held at various restaurants around the conference city in advance, thus providing new experiences and the opportunity to meet people with similar dining tastes. It also gives introverts the peace of mind knowing their plans are arranged and they don’t have to go out of their comfort zone to “reach out to” a number of others to try to make a dinner event happen.

Additionally, the CRO can arrange a meeting location for the group and transportation to the restaurant and back for any networking events later that evening. Again, this keeps the introverts in their comfort zone logistically but provides new experiences and connections that add tremendously to the value of the event.

6. Host a Twitter chat prior to the conference

This is a great way for attendees to get to know a bit about some of the other people who will be attending the event, as well as for conference organizers to promote their speakers. Both SOBCon and BlogWorld do a great job with this, and it enhances the excitement surrounding the upcoming event.

This is a great event for a CRO to host as a way to get to know attendees and to begin to “connect the dots” regarding which attendees they should be sure to introduce at the event for networking purposes.

7. For corporate meetings: a note about roommates

During my corporate experience I attended a number of company sales and marketing meetings, and we usually had to have a roommate for cost reasons. I remember rooming with my boss one year, and with a woman who reported to me another year.

As an introvert, I never felt like I had “down time.” With a boss or direct report in my room I felt like I was “on” 24/7, which was incredibly draining. I certainly understand the cost reasons behind this decision, but would encourage companies to recognize that it does make it difficult for introverts to get the time needed to recharge and to be able to bring their best self to each day of the event.

A leader who recognizes this and addresses it up front by encouraging everyone to carve out time to be alone, will be heralded by their introverted team members! Because if the leader says it’s OK, then the introvert doesn’t feel badly saying to their roommate, “I’m going to go out for a walk; I’ll catch up with you at dinner…”

Conference organizers who acknowledge that introverts get their energy from their inner world of ideas, are most comfortable alone or in groups with one or two others, and need time to re-energize in order to get the most value from conference events, will be able to design conferences that introverts will love…and will return to year after year!

~

The Introvert's Guide to Success in Business and Leadership

The Introvert's Guide to Success in Business and Leadership

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Being an introvert is truly an advantage in business and leadership if you know how to leverage it, and if you remain true to yourself.

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Comments

  1. Lisa, these are all great ideas! I have thought about how to create a good conference experience for introverts over the years, since the most well-known participant-driven conference designs, like Open Space and BarCamp are quite biased towards extroverts.

    One of the key ways I make my participant-driven design, Conferences That Work, friendly to introverts is to require writing, rather than verbal responses, at key points in the process. Because introverts are comfortable thinking quietly and writing their thoughts down, I give everyone a few minutes to write their answers before sharing starts. This levels the playing field between introverts and extroverts.

    Using explicit ground rules, agreed to by all participants, that make it clear that questions can be asked, and feelings and differing points of view expressed, also helps to create a conference environment that is comfortable for introverts.

    Finally a little serendipity: on the topic of conference breaks, I posted a relevant article today on this very subject. “The science of white space at events” can be found at http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/index.php/event-design/2012/01/the-science-of-white-space-at-events/.

    -Adrian-
    Adrian Segar´s last blog post ..The science of white space at events

    • Hi Adrian,

      Thank you so much for your very kind words – I appreciate it! I think it’s wonderful that you’ve incorporated writing into the process at your events as introverts can leverage the written page to immerse themselves in the energy of their ideas, and then share them with their extroverted colleagues. And yes…serendipity! Enjoy your weekend and thank you so much for taking the time to comment, it means a lot to me!

  2. Great tips on creating an atmosphere for everyone to be engaged! I make sure there are a few table top discussions, an opportunity for an audience member to stand up and shine (therefore encouraging others to do the same) at the beginning of the session, and there must be time to reflect then respond within their quiet time.

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