3 Tips for Overcoming Shyness at Conferences

I recently attended the CAST testing conference in Madison, WI and was really glad that I went. While driving there I was nervous, as I am shy and an introvert — but I also know that a lot of the value you can get out of a conference is talking with the people there. I did not want to be this guy, sitting in a hotel room and missing out on the interactions with the other attendees.

So what did I do to make sure I got more from the conference than just listening to the speakers? Here are 3 tips:

1. Be Active Online

For introverts/shy people, the internet can be a much easier way of meeting people than having to go up and talk to them. Once you’ve made contacts online, then meeting them in person at a conference is easier. And if they happen to be an extrovert or more comfortable socially, they will often come up to you and start the conversation. At one session that I attended, I knew 21 out of the 26 people there through Twitter, and it was like meeting friends rather than a room full of strangers.

2. Take Time to Recharge

Make sure you take some time to find a quiet place to recharge your energy and reflect. This was easy at CAST, as the conference center was on the edge of the lake. Sitting at a window looking out at the boats made for a very relaxing 15-minute break. To make sure you get quiet time, there is always the excuse that you “have to check some work mail” or “have to return a call.”

3. Set Yourself Small Challenges

I set myself a Breakfast Challenge: find someone sitting on their own at breakfast (lunch and dinner work as well, but starting the day off like this can be a confidence boost) and go sit with them. Find out how many conferences they’ve been to, what brings them to this conference, etc.

I also set myself a Question Challenge: at the end of every session, ask the speaker a question. A possible drawback with this one is that you focus on thinking of a question rather than the content of the talk!

Follow these tips and then take The Restroom Test: take a walk to the restroom and back and see how many people that you did not know previously nod in recognition or say Hi. By the second day of the conference, I could count on getting at least 5 nods of recognition during my walk.

If you have any tips on how to deal with the social whirl that going to a conference can entail, please let me know in the comments.

  • Fami Nassara says:

    ” To make sure you get quiet time, there is always the excuse that you “have to check some work mail” or “have to return a call.””

    Or you could say that you are introverted and need a bit time to recharge. How about honesty for gods sake?

    • anon says:

      If you can say that, you are not introverted.

      • anon says:

        You’re confusing introversion with social ineptitude. Some introverts are far more socially literate than many extroverts; see http://eqi.org/ for one particular example.

    • john says:

      Some introverted people are not comfortable saying they need quiet time. It’s an unusual thing to state, at least in the US, where extroverted or garroulous people are considered the norm, and quiet, contemplative people are considered odd.

  • Bob says:

    God? Really? Do you think that actually exists?

  • Tina says:

    I try to arrive at conference events early and find a seat at an empty table. I find that it’s far easier to have other people join me, than to approach a table of strangers.

  • in Four Weddings and Funeral, the question is asked “Do you think it possible for someone just to walk up to a girl and say ‘Hi babe, I think you’re beautiful'”, to which the response is “If they do, they’re certainly not English”.I used be that guy, but in Denver I did just what you suggest. At each meal or refreshment break I would deliberately sit down with someone or just walk up and say “Hi, my name’s Michael, from Australia”, and pretend I was playing the role of a socially-confident man from TV. I enjoyed myself much more than if I had just stared into my soup.

  • j says:

    Check out http://www.slideshare.net/sachac/the-shy-connector – some great tips there, like give ppl a reason to talk to you. There have been times before when I’ve given a 5 min unconf talk just to get discussion going.

    • john says:

      (I liked what Michael McBain wrote.)

      Another trick is to limit yourself to conversing for 5-10 minutes, and ending by getting or giving contact information.

  • Linda says:

    One of my tricks to connect to people over lunch or other such times, is to go stand with a group (usually a small group), listen in on their conversation and then slowly start contributing to it. No matter how rude that might feel, you’ll quickly learn that at conferences this is quite acceptable and most people will like your contributions.

  • John says:

    I recently attended a couple of technical conferences and found out that it’s best to go to the social events or breaks (or attendee receptions) in the beginning (like first day of registration or first day of conference) because it always tapers off or diminishes very quickly. Recently I’ve seen many conference personal or vendors who occupy the exhibit floor or booths take off early, sometimes days before the conference ends. I rarely stay for the end of a conference anymore.

    • I agree with John about getting in early. Another trick to getting a very fast group of acquaintances is to sign up for pre-conference workshops. You’re learning something new, and you’re doing it with other people who want to learn those particular skills. It breaks the ice [the workshop is never more than 15-20 people], and those people keep popping up to say hi in the otherwise massive and amorphous crowd during the rest of the conference.

      • Phil Kirkham Phil Kirkham says:

        Thanks for the comments

        That’s exactly what I did at the conference I went to – there was a small pre-conference event at the weekend ( 25 people ), I went to that so that by the time the actual conference started I had a bunch of friends and had already gotten in some practice and confidence with meeting new people.

  • I like what you have said about overcoming your fear of being social at conferences. Tackling the problem all at once might be hard and so your advice to take things one step at a time is really smart. My wife is always scared to talk to strangers and be social and so by going to different conferences, she can talk to others in her same position. Thanks again!

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