Some people go to conferences for networking opportunities, but I typically go to learn new stuff (and don't pay much attention to people). I don't feel compelled to talk to a bunch of people just because I'm in the same room as them. Have the curiosity and courage to talk to strangers and make connections with lots of people in a short period of time? I find that overwhelming and tiring. As an introvert, I find it draining to interact with a high number of people in short periods of time.
I’ve struggled in the past at conferences to meet people and learn from all of the sessions I attended. Leading up to the Scrum Gathering Las Vegas, my bar was low but I learned some new concepts AND had some good networking moments:
- There were some folks I recognized from the Dallas user groups, so I chatted with a few of them in the hallways, over breakfast, and went to dinner with one. They're not people I spend a whole lot of time talking to in Dallas outside of our group meetings. It was cool to see familiar faces outside the geography of our community.
- I attended a session on Dispersed Teams and recognized the speaker from last year's AYE Conference. I stayed after the session to talk to him more about the content he covered and reaffirmed our connection.
- During the Agile Superpowers session that covered a different language to think about coaching, I found myself repeatedly standing in the same parts of the room as one woman in particular. She reflected some of the awkwardness I felt when the presenters asked us to form a group and (without talking) come up with a physical gesture for a given superpower, which I think gave us an initial sense of connection. We ended up in different parts of the room at the end, and she shared some of her thoughts and experiences with the large group, allowing herself to be really vulnerable. I recognized the strength she had in doing so and realized that whatever followed her act of courage could either give her tremendous support or make her feel incredibly isolated. With barely a second thought, I started blurting out my thoughts and experiences, joining her in vulnerability. She and I exchanged business cards after the session, and we've stayed in touch through emails since then.
- Since we had free time in the evenings, I decided to look up places for swing dancing and found that some dancers regularly go to the House of Blues on Tuesday nights. I went and sat in the bar. After watching for a while, I approached one of the dancers, and by the end of the night, I had danced with 4 or 5 guys. One guy in particular told me to connect with him online; I messaged him before I visited Vegas in November and was able to dance with some locals again.
So how did I manage to network as an introvert without missing out on learning new ideas?
- Use common experiences – I found it easiest to start conversations with people whom I shared something: we were from the same city, attended a different conference together, participated in the same workshop, or shared a hobby. A shared experience provides an easy icebreaker and helps define the relationship immediately.
- Connect with individuals – I rarely approach groups and instead focus on an individual. Pick one friendly-looking person and form a genuine connection. What does he love about his job? What was she excited to learn at the conference? It’s challenging to insert yourself into a group and get to know everyone, so start small. The best connections are formed one-on-one.
- Don’t try to do everything – If being in a room full of people drains you, then set limits on how much time you spend in that environment. In order for me to get the most out of a conference, I have to pay attention to my own needs, which means that I take breaks for quiet time. I need time to think about the new ideas and new people that I’ve been introduced to, and I may need to skip a conference session during the day so I can keep learning the rest of the day. Learn what works best for you.