Building Introvert-Friendly Conferences

Brutal honesty time: I got out of bed three times on Thursday. Twice for food, and once for the bathroom. Two of those three times, I wound up on the couch for extended periods. Thursday was an astonishingly low-key day, and it likely would biblically be referred to as sloth.

But I needed it. Because conference season.

Actual footage of me arriving home from NASPA. IMAGE CREDIT: Giphy

Five days of conference travel, connection with new friends and old, panel and talk delivery, and my newest role as exhibition booth resident, took everything out of me. Even the earplug-assisted sleep I surrendered to each night wasn’t enough to give me the full charge I needed to resume daily life upon my return. For as long as conferences – and this is irrespective of field, as higher education and student affairs are far from the only vocations that structure their conferences as we do – are set up as they are, there will be folks who feel paralyzed by their exhaustion when they get home. Let’s be honest, 7am sessions will do that to anyone who’s had a long day.

When I had the power to structure day-long student learning experiences, I tried to be sensitive to what these sorts of schedules can do, to introverts but also to anyone for whom days feel long. I speak about this when I talk to students about creating introvert-friendly structures, and recently got a note back about this in evaluations: “I wish our own schedule followed the recommendations the speaker made.” 

Conference schedules, whether they’re day-long training days for students, or multi-day affairs for professionals, are designed for people to operate within. People with limits to their energy and attention. While we may never be able to take all the elements that challenge our energy stores out, how can we be better?

Release schedules early. What are people in for when they attend your conference, regardless of its length? The ability to assess the landscape of the experience early, can affect how prepared are to engage meaningfully. Particularly with student conferences, I recognize the wish to keep things under wraps to prevent prejudice about what will be covered or if it will be “worth their time.” If this is something you worry about, I’d recommend at least showing a brief breakdown of how time will be spent (when’s the keynote? How long are the breakouts? When will we be eating?). This awareness of the landscape of the day will prevent the sort of surprise that can cause a deep energy dip in introverts, and stoke the anxiety of those in need of more information.

Move beyond “bio breaks.” Even the best information in the world, is of little use to those who don’t have the capacity to hear or absorb it. While we think about this more in terms of the length of sessions (and I am loving the conference who play around with the standard construct of one-hour lecture sessions, allowing for shorter or longer sessions and different styles of delivery), we need to be equally thoughtful about the time allowed between sessions.

When I create my own breaks at conferences. IMAGE CREDIT: The Odyssey Online

“Bio breaks,” or the 5-10 minute passing periods that we provide for the essential hydration and bathroom needs, aren’t enough for those whose thoughts coalesce more slowly, to develop and connect with one another. My recommendation is 15-20 minutes, depending upon how far sessions are from one another. Those who benefit from spending time on their own to figure out what they learned and where it might apply can do so; those who would prefer to do that thinking through conversation with fellow board members or peers can do that. If it helps, bill it instead as “So What/Now What?” time. “Essential” needs can be taken care of here, but it reinforces the idea that application of these shared ideas and principles is essential too.

Note session participation levels. In my experience submitting and reviewing conference sessions, a requirement to list how participants will engage with the content presented is becoming a standard. However, that information isn’t always shared with participants. I argue that it should be. I’m thinking about a leadership learning experience that I engaged in a few weeks ago, where the full delegation was split into groups and worked with their team members. While my workshop leader was more my speed- contemplative, with a good mix of individual and group-based activities – the room next to us was far louder and more raucous in the participation it required. I completely recognize that style works for many, but there were a few moments as we heard the shouting through the wall that I couldn’t help but think, “I’m so glad I’m not in there…”

Session descriptions are provided to participants in hopes that they can make informed decisions about what information they’re consuming; it would be a short leap to also let them know how they’ll be consuming it. Some may worry that this would affect the attendance of sessions that fall to an extreme, but I don’t. Those aware of their energy needs can better prepare (to the first point) for a session that will challenge them, when they know what they’re walking into. Whether that challenge is silent contemplation for those accustomed to more raucous group talk, or intense group work for those who prefer individual reflection, the ability to be prepared for the level of contribution needed could change the way many approach these experiences.

Out of necessity, but I will challenge Jim Halpert to this title any day. IMAGE CREDIT: HR Dive

Truly optional post-event socials. It might surprise you to hear, but I really do love the idea of socials after learning experiences, where participants can follow up on comments or common interests that leaked out over the course of the day. I do. But my participation in them tends to be limited, and occasionally it’s something I literally don’t have it in me to do. Don’t let these sorts of opt-outs hurt people.

I think specifically about instances where these gatherings are used as a decision making mechanism, an opportunity to inform hiring or selection. These gatherings can be billed as optional, and attendees may be told there’s “no pressure” to attend or not attend; if that’s true, then it needs to be really true. No points, informally or otherwise, should be deducted for not attending or for leaving early. Why? Because from a temperamental standpoint, the differential is simply too great. An introvert who has truly tested the length of their charge will not be good company in moments like those. And unless the role you’re evaluating them for will regularly test their energy stores, you won’t get an accurate “reading” on who this individual is and how they interact. So as you plan these evaluation opportunities, socials and “off-the-clock” gatherings shouldn’t be a column on your decision sheet. Seek to make those judgments elsewhere, or in other ways.

What other mechanisms can you think of to make conferences more friendly? Cozier session accommodations? More snacks? Foam earplugs as a conference giveaway? Let me know!

Shameless Plug: if you want help crafting a conference schedule for your students or staff that thoughtfully incorporates these strategies and more, please get in touch! And if you’d like a speaker at said conference- on this topic, or several others, I can do that too.

6 thoughts on “Building Introvert-Friendly Conferences

  1. I hope that conference attendees realize they do not need to participate in conference programming for the 15 hours per day that it is offered (and I hope conference organizers don’t expect this from attendees). I’ll often choose to skip a session or two to have a leisurely meal, take a nap, or just compile my notes. I’d rather go to 2-3 sessions a day that I really learn something from than 6-7 that I end up moving through like a zombie.

  2. This is a great point, and one I’ve shared with students when traveling. The conference runs from 7am-11pm, but it is unreasonable to expect people to do the same. Who has the energy, the attention, the will?

  3. I have ALL THE THOUGHTS about this – mainly because I’m currently considering putting together my own mini-conference/retreat that is more project-focused, and as a fellow introvert, I’ve been thinking about what my ideal conference would look like. Also, I can honestly say that out of the last two national conventions I attended, other than keynotes and Pecha Kuchas, I only attended four conference sessions – and that’s mainly because I was actually presenting at three of them. I’ve been attending for the networking opportunities, so how can we maintain those opportunities but make them more fruitful for introverted attendees? I mean, I want to go to the laid-back social events because that’s where I do my best brainstorming and processing, but I definitely can’t go after a full day of sessions.
    So I’m envisioning a conference where we spend some time together, learning and engaging, and then some time apart, where individuals can go take what they’ve learned and actually use it or process on their own. But that time apart is not taken on their own time, it’s actually planned into the conference. And then we can come back and talk some more – because extroverts, too, yo. Imagine what we might be able to accomplish if we’re both in environments that are uncomfortable to us as well as those that are more comfortable.
    One last thought while I’m taking over your blog post with my comment: I’ve had a number of people say that conferences or professional development days or whatever are good for introverts because we tend to grow in times of discomfort, but how does that actually help extroverts? Are they growing if all of the professional development opportunities are catering to their needs and comfort? Maybe this isn’t just an introvert problem but an extrovert problem, as well.

  4. That last question that you have is a big one, Kristen. And my goal with any introvert-friendly recommendations is to prevent them from being extrovert-unfriendly. I don’t see it as an either/or, but consistently strive for a both/and. This piece is screaming for a follow-up, and I plan to look for an answer to your question. Stay tuned!

  5. I struggle with this, especially when my institution is paying for me to be at the conference. I have a feeling (very likely self-imposed) that I need to be there to learn *all the things* in each and every session… and yet, by not taking a bit more time for myself while at a conference, I almost inevitably end up with the post-conference sickness that takes me out of the office for another couple of days. No one has put “attending all sessions” as a condition of my receiving funding to attend, so I need to get a bit more comfortable making myself, my learning, and my well-being a priority.

  6. I completely understand that struggle, Sarah. Getting the most value out of a registration can make it seem like you have to go to everything, and be everywhere. My response to this: even if you treated it as you do a regular workday, that is (presumably) eight hours a day, whereas most conference schedules run far longer. Further, that eight hour workday includes lunch breaks- where conferences may not always.
    The bottom line for me: my institution (or, in my present circumstances, me) isn’t getting too much value out of my attendance if much of it is inattentive or zombie-like. I do what I can to get the most value out of the experience energetically, because that’s what gives me the best chance at bringing back good things to improve my work and that of my coworkers/colleagues. I think you nailed it in that last sentence- make your learning and well-being paramount to how you engage. Hopefully conference organizers and session presenters will give you a little help in that regard after these posts 😉

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