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How to attend a conference without feeling overwhelmed

Conferences can be excellent networking opportunities, but they can also be exhausting for introverts. Here’s how to set yourself up for success.

How to attend a conference without feeling overwhelmed
[Photo: rclassenlayouts/iStock]

Attending conferences is a fantastic way to make new connections and keep abreast of trends in your industry. But for introverts, conferences can often be overwhelming—a necessary evil to be experienced as infrequently as possible. Even if you don’t subscribe to the whole introvert/extrovert dichotomy, you might find yourself exhausted by the conference circuit. Here are some ways I’ve found to successfully navigate conferences without getting burned out:

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Focus on just one person

One of the biggest benefits of attending conferences is meeting others. But that doesn’t mean that you have to meet as many people as you possibly can. When I first started attending conferences, I made this mistake. Most of the connections I made weren’t very deep and didn’t lead to lasting relationships or business. After one conference, I pulled all the business cards out of my bag, realizing I could only put three faces to names. Worse, I was so exhausted that it took me a week to recover.

At the next conference, I decided that I’d be happy if I met one person I really connected with. This shift in strategy made the process much less daunting. I learned that successful networking isn’t measured in the sheer number of people you meet—it’s all about the connection. This will not only make those networking happy hours more bearable, but you’ll come away with better connections, too.

Don’t stay at the conference hotel

It’s easy to feel like you need to stay at the hotel hosting the conference to get the most out of the event. While the events and meeting rooms are closer, it also means you’re more likely to run into others from the conference at night or during off times. Feeling like you’re always “on” can be stressful, especially if you’re the type who needs plenty of downtime.

At bigger conferences (or ones where I know a lot of people), I tend to stay at a hotel that’s within walking distance. It creates a separation, which means I’m less likely to see others I know, allowing me to remove the pressure of being sociable. The added benefit of the walk is that it gives me a chance to prep myself for the day and to decompress at the end, so I’m ready for another day of being around people.

Build downtime into your schedule

Hopping from one event to another with no downtime can burn out even the most social person. During one conference, I was feeling really overwhelmed and desperately wanted alone time, but I also felt guilty about missing potentially important opportunities to connect with others in my industry. Even still, I realized that I didn’t have to make it a zero-sum game. I didn’t have to attend every single event.

Before you hit the conference, review the schedule. Take note of speakers and events that are most relevant to you, and then look for time you can take for yourself. Events often have apps that allow you to create your own customized schedule, making it even easier to find time to get away—even for a half hour. Planning for downtime can help make sure you don’t burn out.

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Find alternative ways to network

Thrusting your business cards into people’s hands is not the only (or even the most effective) way to network these days. Rather than stick to traditional ways of meeting people at happy hours or other social events, experiment with more unconventional methods.

At one conference, I wasn’t feeling great, so to keep myself engaged, I tweeted three or four good tidbits from each talk. Though it wasn’t my intention, by the end of the day, I had gained 10 new followers and made three genuine connections who later I met in real life. I’m still in touch with them, years after the event.

I skipped happy hour in favor of going back to the hotel for quiet time. The next day I returned to the conference refreshed and ready to engage. I’d found a new method of connecting by accident. Now it’s a staple when I go to conferences. I learned not to discount the power of social media to make connections.

Another alternative way to network at a conference is by being a speaker. While it may seem counterintuitive, speaking at a conference can make some introverts much more comfortable. It gives you the chance to share your expertise without having to engage in small talk, and it also means you have conversation points ready when people approach you. The only downside to this approach is that more people will be likely to strike up a conversation, so you’ll need to make sure you get enough downtime during the rest of the conference to counteract this.

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