I am not sure how or when it happened, but at some point, I became a person who attends conferences.
You never think about this when you envision the freelance life. You assume freelancing means you’ll sit in seclusion all day, become best friends with your computer (shout out to Frank), and fully embrace the “hermit” state of mind. It’s an introvert’s fantasy!
And sure, sometimes that’s what the fantasy looks like. But also? Freelancing can require a hell of a lot of networking, just as much, if not more, than a traditional 9 to 5. You meet other freelancers. You collaborate with them, call people on Skype, chat with clients, go to panels.
And then there are the conferences. Three or four days of nonstop meeting and greeting and handshaking and business card trading. It’s an introvert’s nightmare.
Yet I’ve had a lot of fun at conferences recently. And the more I attend, the better I get at navigating them. Networking for introverts is always a challenge, but there are some tricks that can make the challenge a little more doable.
Find an Anchor
The first time I went to a real media event, I invited a friend along, but she was late. When I got there, I beelined for the bathroom and texted her, “hurry up, I’m hiding in the bathroom!” It’s silly, but if you’re shy (which I know is not the same thing as being introverted, but the two often go hand-in-hand), showing up to a party or other event where you don’t know a single person can be terrifying. Terrifying enough to hide in the bathroom. Because who do you talk to? You start panicking. Where do I go? What do I do? Where are the snacks? Yeah, that sounds good, I’ll just hang out with the snacks.
For this reason, I bring a friend along whenever I can. And if that friend is late or just unavailable, I start hunting for my anchor. Your “anchor” is the person you hang out with until you find your own ground at the conference or event. This might be another lonesome stranger you strike up a conversation with. Or if it’s a small gathering, the host who invited you. Don’t cling to your anchor all night (because that’ll probably get really annoying really fast), but think of them as a way to help you talk to other people, walk around more, or just get used to socializing.
Like any goal, break down your desire to chat up a room full of people by starting with one person. It’s so much easier to network when you only have to focus on networking with a single person. Then talk to another person. Then another. Before you know it, you’re the life of the conference! Okay, maybe not — but hey — you’re not hugging the wall anymore.
Learn Some Charisma 101
My friend, we’ll call him Pete, is a perfect example of the fact the charisma is not something you’re born with. It’s a skill you learn. It is very hard for anyone to dislike Pete. I have not met a single person who says, “You know, I just don’t like the cut of that Pete guy’s jib.” He’s always smiling, but not too much, always listening, but still offers his two cents, and is just an all-around fun dude to hang out with.
“You’re so good at talking to people,” I told him once. He scoffed. “But I hate talking to people,” he told me. “I never feel confident and I’m actually really shy,” he said. Pete told me his shyness was so crippling, in fact, that he vowed to do something about it. So he started viewing every potential interaction with another human being as a challenge to be more likable. Apparently, Pete is good at this challenge. So take solace, my fellow introverts. You can be shy and antisocial and still be charismatic as hell. It just takes learning a few basic social rules.
For one, accept the fact that none of this is really about you. Learning to carry a conversation productively is not about making yourself seem as awesome as possible. It’s more about making the other person feel as awesome as possible. Sometimes I’m so conscious of how I’m coming across that I forget…no one gives a hot damn. Everyone else is too busy worrying about themselves, and people like it when you seem to take an interest in them. And I happen to think pretty much anyone you meet has something interesting about them. Find it, ask questions, and be present in that conversation.
Sometimes the challenge is starting a conversation in the first place. Icebreakers can be tough, which is why I always fall back on the standard “Occasion, Location” rule to kick off a conversation. (Ask a stranger about either the occasion or the location.) Let’s get it straight, I’m not suggesting you lean in, spray some Binaca in your mouth, and ask, “come here often?” That’s just bad. But “What brings you to this event?” is a reasonable enough question. Or go with the location instead. “This is a lovely building, I’ve never been to an event here, have you?” You get the idea.
It’s Okay to Admit You’re Vulnerable
Finally, it’s okay to admit that you’re a little overwhelmed. You’ll probably be surprised to learn just how many people are in the same boat. Doesn’t it seem like everyone is an introvert lately? Like it’s a trend or something, right?
Or maybe it’s because, despite being a culture that celebrates extroversion, most of us favor the traits associated with introversion. Just a thought. I’ve found that when I tell other conference goers that I’m exhausted from all of the socializing, they say something like “Oh my god, I know. I just want to go back to my room and take a nap!” Admitting you’re human is actually a great way to break the ice and get to know someone a little better.
And speaking of naps, man, are they underrated. There’s nothing wrong with scheduling time to recharge back in your hotel room when all of the social madness is starting to make you lose your footing. Doing so can help you pace yourself so you don’t burn out. You come back to the conference fully recharged, rested, and ready to deal with people. And who knows? Maybe you’ll even have a little fun.