Article: Navigating the MPACE Conference as an Introvert - Six Strategies for Success
By Kelly Dries
As an introvert, navigating any professional conference can be a challenge. For a long time I felt like a conference was something I could never do well because of that. While I can’t approach the conference in the same way as some of my “woo” friends and colleagues might be able to, I can still navigate it. These are the strategies that have helped me do so successfully, and have made MPACE feel less like a stuffy conference and more like my extended family.
Build in alone time.
Growing up, I was the elementary school student who would sneak away from the cafeteria to eat my lunch in the library, hiding behind a book. You might read that, and think “aww poor little girl” but there is no need for sympathy, because that is where I was at my best, at my most comfortable, and that is where I wanted to be. Alone. With my thoughts. By myself. My natural preference was and still is for quiet and conversations with few people, not a room full of crowds. I opted for alone time over time with friends many times throughout my life. Still now, there are days when I am around people all the time at work, that when I get home, I need time to be alone. Being alone is where I can recharge. Being alone is where I feel safe and comfortable.
As an introvert, a conference can be exhausting! Because of this, it is important to sneak away and find some time for yourself during the day to process. Maybe that’s a quick walk during a break or unwinding at the end of the night alone. Finding that time to relax and prepare your intentions for the next day of the conference is critical. The strategy that works best for me is to bookend any reception with some quiet time before and after, so that I am properly prepared, and have time to recharge after the fact.
Come up with a plan for large receptions and networking events.
I vividly remember my first MPACE conference. It was my first year in the profession, and I only knew the people from my own institution. During the first networking event, I remember going into the restroom to do some quick “power posing” and deep breathing because I was so nervous, and I didn’t want to face a room full of strangers. I gathered up enough courage to leave the restroom, and walked into the event. I stared into a sea of faces I did not recognize, a sea of faces that didn’t look up at me, so even though I could hear my stomach rumbling because of how hungry I was, I did what comes naturally to me, and I turned around and walked out of the room to leave the reception. My anxiety eased, I felt like myself again. Because the conference that year happened to be in my home city, I went back to my house, read a book, and I missed out on an evening of building relationships, connections, and friends. The next day everyone chatted about what a great time they had, and there was a sinking feeling of disappointment that I had missed out.
What I failed to do that first year was come up with a plan. As an introvert, going into a reception without a plan, caused me to become frustrated, exhausted, and eventually to leave without talking to anyone. Now when I know I’m going to an event where I won’t know anyone in the room, I will walk into that room with a goal – to talk to one person, or maybe three (depends on how adventurous I’m feeling). My best strategy is to stretch myself, but to be sure not to overwhelm myself by either not having a plan or by expecting to be like my extroverted colleagues. I realized in my first conference that my natural approach wasn’t going to help me make connections and make the most of the conference, so I started creating goals that worked for me, which gave me something to focus on and also challenge myself.
Think of some conversation starters & find ways to end the conversation.
During my second conference experience, I vowed I would do better than my first. I had a goal – to talk to at least one person I didn’t know. I gathered up my courage, faced my fears and walked into the lunch business meeting, with a goal of sitting with people I didn’t know. I approached a table of strangers, sat down, and asked if I could join them. I asked the individual next to me what university they were from. I then asked what position they held. And then – I had no other questions to ask. My mind went radio silent. I was wracking my brain, trying to think of something to say, when I blurted out what came into my head, which was what they thought about the weather today. Yes, I went there – to the weather. They kindly responded, and the conversation stopped. I awkwardly sat there, unsure what to say next, and they carried on the conversation with someone on their other side. I tried. Not my best, and certainly not comfortable, but I tried.
From that evening, I learned that for me, it helps to prepare open ended questions I could ask – that can help jump start a conversation. Now I have my list of go-to questions that help me strike up conversations with people I don’t know. I also realized that people really like to be listened to, so if I can have enough good questions, ask follow-up questions, I can really keep the focus on them, which can take the pressure off me feeling like I need to speak to keep the conversation going. I also realized from this experience that finding ways to properly exit a conversation can make me feel less awkward – so ending conversations with “It was great talking with you – I’d love to talk to you again in the future to learn more about “x” and continue our conversation –do you have a business card on you?” This helps me wrap up the conversation, and provide closure, without making me feel awkward when the conversation just stops.
Connect with people in advance.
During my next MPACE conference, I planned in advance. I reached out to people who would be attending, and I made plans so that any reception I would be attending, I would be meeting someone there. It would be someone I either somewhat knew or was interested in getting to know further. I walked in having a plan for the conversation because I knew what I wanted to ask, I had some curiosity around the person’s role. It wasn’t forced. It was comfortable. It was something I enjoy – building a relationship with someone I wanted to get to know better on a 1:1 basis.
This is the strategy that helped turn a dreaded networking event and room full of strangers into an opportunity to build a relationship with someone in a 1:1 setting. It also eased the fear of this for me, because I reached out via email in advance, explained my reason for wanting to connect. It also allowed me to look them up on LinkedIn to find shared interests and commonalities, so that I could find common ground in a conversation.
Find a conference buddy.
As I continued to attend MPACE conferences, I stretched a little further, and reached out to people who I knew thrived in a reception area, loved meeting new people, and were great at striking up conversations with strangers, and never ended up talking about the weather. I found the “woo’s” in my network and I asked for their support. (You know who you are Melissa Kraft). I’d find an opportunity to go to the conference reception with them, and they’d help me by nature of letting me tag along, introduce me, and help me observe how they handle themselves. For me, having that one person helped me feel more comfortable and more likely to open up to others. It eased my anxiety.
When I walk into a reception at an MPACE conference today, most people have no idea I am as far on the “I” scale as you can go. Because for me, networking has lost the fear it once held for me. Now, I am still an introvert, and I would never say that I love a reception. I’ve always been an introvert, and talking to a crowd of strangers is never going to be more appealing to me than reading a book. But what’s changed for me now, is that when I walk into a crowded opening reception at MPACE, instead of looking into a sea of faces I do not recognize, I now see a scattering of faces I do know. It eases the anxiety, and I can go and talk to my friends and colleagues from across the association.
One of the best things I did to build relationships and begin to know people in the sea of faces at MPACE was to get involved. I started by reaching out to connect with people in the region, then signing up to volunteer, then getting involved with the conference committee, and then the next year’s conference committee, and the next…., and now I serve on the MPACE Board as the Director for Education and Professional Development. I took that first step to get involved, and it helped me create a network of people who no longer make it feel like a room full of strangers.
This does take time, but start by attending the newcomer reception on Wednesday, reach out to people you want to get to know, ask your colleagues who they might recommend you reach out to, and sign up to volunteer at the conference. After that, sign up to get more involved with MPACE through next year’s conference committee or one of the board committees. It’s about taking some baby steps, and finding the strategies and approach that works best for you, to make the most of the conference experience.
Now, can I certainly still be incredibly awkward when I walk into a conversation with a stranger at MPACE? Absolutely. Will I eventually ask you about the weather when I can’t think of another question to ask? Most likely. But will I force myself to walk into the room and try to talk to people? Yes. Conferences take me out of my comfort zone each time, but I’ve found it to be well worth the journey. These strategies helped me to embrace my introverted self, and find ways that I could still benefit from the extroverted personalities that exist at MPACE. For all of the introverts out there, I hope these strategies are helpful as you navigate our upcoming conference, and I look forward to seeing you there, and perhaps if I do, I’ll ask you about your thoughts on the weather.
I’d love to hear your strategies – feel free to send them along at Kelly_dries@redlands.edu And if you want to meet up at the conference – I’d love to connect!
About the author: Kelly Dries is the Executive Director for the Career Center at the University of Redlands. Currently, Kelly is the Director of Education & Professional Development for MPACE.