Navigating the NASPA Western Regional Conference as an introvert: 6 strategies for success


Author
Kelly Dries

Published
October 6, 2017


As an introvert, navigating any professional conference can be a challenge.  I’ve always been a strong “I”, and 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, and these are the strategies that have helped me do so successfully. 

1.     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!  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.

2.     Come up with a plan for large receptions and networking events

I vividly remember my first NASPA 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, a sea of faces I would have to walk through to get to the food area, 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, I went back to my room to read a book, and I missed out on an evening of building relationships, connections, and friends. 

What I failed to do 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 the reception 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.  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, which gave me something to focus on and challenge myself. 

3.     Think of some conversation starters & find ways to end the conversation

During my second NASPA 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 reception.  I got in line to get food, made eye contact with a stranger on the other side of the food line, and gathered up the courage to say “hello.”  I asked them 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 walked away, unsure what to say next.  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 can help wrap up the conversation, provide closure, without making you feel awkward continuing to walk through the food line and not speaking anymore.  

4.     Connect with people in advance

During my third NASPA 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. 

5.     Find a conference buddy

During my fourth conference experience, 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.  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. 

6.     Get Involved

When I walk into a reception at a NASPA conference today, it is no longer scary.  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 reception at NASPA, 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 region. 

One of the best things I did to build relationships and begin to know people in the sea of faces at NASPA 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 a KC, then with the conference committee, and now I am on the Region V Board, as the KC Co-Coordinator.  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 some sessions for newcomers to meet other new attendees, reach out to people you want to get to know, and sign up to volunteer at the conference.  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 reception at NASPA?  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.  NASPA takes me out of my comfort zone at each conference, 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 extrovertedness that exists at NASPA.  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 [email protected].  And if you want to meet up at the conference – I’d love to connect!


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