Slowly public life is getting back to normal in some parts of the world. Shops – especially restaurants – are reopening and people are gathering more and more, reviving their social life. Extroverted people, who probably suffered a lot under the lockdown, are already scraping their feet impatiently to finally throw themselves (with masks!) back into the turmoil. For the 25% of people who are considered introverted however, almost forgotten problems rise again. "How do I behave in large gatherings of people unknown to me?", "How can I make sure I'm not overwhelmed at events?" Many of these questions also arise for online events. To take these people into account at the events you are planning, whether in person or virtually, we – the mainly introverted team of tbd* – have created a little guide.
Conference type events, designed for networking, bring together many things that introverts do not like: lots of people, small talk, public speaking, not being able to control your environment, being forced to do activities you might feel uncomfortable with (“ice breaker games”), no place to recharge, people that talk forever without considering others’ needs. The same applies to Online Events.
At tbd*, we all fall more or less on the introvert end of the spectrum. Which means that none of us particularly enjoy large format events. And yet, for three years in a row we organised the persist* Summit, an impact careers event and jobs fair, which was attended by nearly 1000 participants!! Last year, feeling exhausted and a little disillusioned, we asked ourselves, Why are we doing this? We want to build a vibrant community, but this just doesn't feel right. So we stopped. Instead we decided to create events that are more meaningful for all kinds of personalities; where deep and honest connections can be made. In this article, we’d like to share a few ideas on how to make events more introvert-friendly and how to enable deeper conversations. All these ideas stem from our own experiences with (big) events.
How to make events more meaningful for all?
There are a few small things that can be done to make events more meaningful for introverts (and also shy people, which is not the same as an introvert).
This brings many benefits to the entire event: More people (even extroverts) feel welcome, are able to participate and show their opinions and personalities, which enhances diversity of opinions and outcomes.
What Does Introvert Mean?
But first, the basics. There are a lot of prejudices and misunderstandings around the term “Introvert”:
- no, we are not necessarily shy
- no, we do not stay at home every weekend alone in bed with a book (although that is appealing sometimes)
- yes, we do like having conversations (but not necessarily small talk)
- yes, we do think a lot before saying something, which often leads to us not saying anything, as somebody else has already taken the floor
According to Susan Cain in her book “Quiet”, there are several important points that flag people as introverts:
- introverts need less stimulation from the outside world, which means that they tend to prefer a quiet evening with close friends instead of going out and meeting lots of new people
- introverts often work slowly and deliberately, like to focus on one task at a time instead of multitasking and can have very good concentration
- introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy company, but in contrast to extroverts, they feel tired of people after a while and wish to be alone. Being alone gives them energy, being with (unknown) people depletes their energy
- they prefer listening to speaking, think before they speak; often prefer expressing themselves in written conversations and tend to avoid conflicts
- many dread small talk, but enjoy deep talk
But how to translate this into the creation of events? Here are a few insights and tips:
Before the Event
Even before your event starts, you can take steps to help people feel more comfortable about attending, which might also help attract a more diverse crowd.
- Make sure that everyone knows what is expected, what will happen, what kinds of formats / moderation tools will be used in sessions. This way your attendees get the chance to plan their participation, feel prepared and are able to see if there are enough sessions that fit their needs.
- Prepare a set of questions related to the topic of the event and ask people to think about them before coming. Also encourage them to write down their ideas and their questions, so they are prepared to ask (and answer) questions on the spot and get involved.
- Inform about options for a time-out, down-time and deep talk possibilities.
- Often, people like to take an active role at events. Especially for introverts, being able to carry out a task at an event helps to avoid the awkwardness of standing in a corner and not talking to people. So it might make sense to offer volunteer roles before the event.
The Arrival Situation
The first impression in every situation is key. When arriving to a confusing and stressful atmosphere, all the courage it took me to go there might fizzle out. On the other hand, if event staff are helpful, have a friendly smile and are calm, I can enter with confidence and feel like I am in the right spot.
How often have I stood next to people and wanted to start a conversation, but not known what to ask? Introverts don’t feel comfortable with small talk, which makes starting a conversation with a stranger not exactly the easiest thing to do.
Often, event organisers use icebreaker games to make people mingle, but depending on the game, this can also be very challenging for introverts. Always make sure that it is not mandatory to participate in games, group activities or certain parts of the event.
So what actually can help?
Small gestures can include:
creating opportunities for shared experiences, like sheets of paper on the tables with event-specific trivia or board games
Name tags. You can also encourage people to complete an, “I am seeking…” or, “I can offer…” statement on their badge. This creates conversation starters. Kind of a different topic, but nevertheless important to mention here: On badges, leave space for people to add their pronouns to indicate how they want to be addressed. In online event formats, you can ask people to change their names to Name - Organisation - City or Name and three of their most important values.
Break down groups:
- give people the possibility to work together in small groups. Introverts often find large groups intimidating and likely won't actively participate. It helps them when you provide opportunities for one-on-one conversations or activities where attendees can work in small groups with maximum 5 people. In online events, you can use break out rooms for these kind of group works.
- round tables are very helpful, where specific questions are to be discussed. With only a limited number of interested people attending, everyone can bring in their experience and knowledge.
- Introverts love deep talk instead of small talk. Depending on the person(ality), deep talk can mean talking about emotional or personal topics or getting into deep discussions about their favourite topics. To encourage such an atmosphere, you can ask people to do an exercise on active listening. It works like this (works virtually as well!):
- First, ask people to get together in pairs (or get them in breakout rooms with only two persons).
- The first person has three minutes to share their experiences around a certain topic, or just to talk about themself. The other person listens with their full attention. It is important to just be with the other person, not to think about possible replies or your own story.
- After the three minutes, it's the second person’s turn to tell their story, while the first one listens actively.
Time and Space to Recharge
For introverts, overstimulation at events is a serious problem. We need time to process our thoughts and to connect with ourselves. But for this, we need “empty” time and space, both of which are usually quite rare. So what can an event manager do?
- Provide quiet spots, where people can hide behind their computers or notebooks. Offer spaces with comfortable seating options where you can sit alone or in pairs. Make clear that these spaces are not for talking, but for contemplation. Think about some light, relaxing music in such areas.
- Offer yoga, mindfulness or meditation sessions, or a recreation room for individual practice. All of these can also be integrated in online sessions, if you are planning ahead.
- Think about offering staggered sessions so that not everybody has breaks at the same time and break times are not super loud and full.
Podium Discussions and Q&A Sessions: What to Consider?
To make a podium discussion inclusive for all personality types, you can do the following:
- Consider using methods that allow for anonymous and written outlets such as live polling forums.
- Tell people before a group participation or Q&A session to consider their questions or statements before asking, and to be mindful of ensuring that other people have time to speak. You can also ask everyone to write down questions ahead of time—they can cross points off as they are answered. If there’s anything left on the list, they have a question ready when the time comes.
- It helps to offer notepads and pens for that purpose. It also gives people something to hold in their hands, which gives a comforting feeling.
Have you had other experiences at conferences that were helpful for you? Do you agree or disagree with what we have written? Let us know, we want to keep learning! Just write an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.