IntrovELT: Conferencing for introverts

The spring conference season is upon us, and I’m already feeling both excited and anxious about it.

I go to a lot of conferences. I love conferences. Learning from others’ experience, meeting new people, seeing old friends, simply enjoying a change of work environment from the usual desk/office space… These are all Good Things and I enjoy them. Honestly, I do.

Nevertheless, whether as a speaker or as an attendee, I find most conferences quite stressful. It’s got little to do with how well organised the event is in general (though that does make a difference, of course). It’s mainly because spending all day, every day, for the entire day or (worse!) several days in a row in the company of lots of other people is simply extremely draining.

Consider for a moment what conferences involve:

  • spending hours and hours following a schedule that someone else designed
  • feeling obliged to attend certain sessions (perhaps because they’re given by certain important people, or because they’re particularly relevant to a project you’re working on)
  • having breakfast with other people (who perhaps you don’t know very well, or who you normally see only at the office/school, long after you’ve had breakfast in the comfort of your own home)… every day…
  • having lunch with other people (who perhaps you don’t know very well)… every day…
  • having dinner with other people (who perhaps you don’t know very well)… every day… (Are you sensing a trend here? Very often, meal “breaks” are not really breaks, from an introvert’s point of view.)
  • attending evening events, especially in order to socialise with people you’d like to meet or people you only get to see once a year (like at IATEFL)
  • having nowhere to sit where you definitely won’t be interrupted by someone who wants to talk (except – maybe – a locked toilet cubicle)
  • having countless conversations about things that other people are passionate about, that other people think are important, that other people have been dying to talk about – in short, having your headspace invaded by other people’s armies of thoughts
  • meanwhile, trying to remember and reflect on all the things you’ve seen and heard in conference sessions so far
  • wanting to see people and presentations that are all happening at the same time and struggling to decide how to choose/prioritise
  • resolving to catch up later (e.g. via recordings/blogposts) on all the sessions you had to miss (see point above)

In short, although conferences are fun events with lots of interesting stuff to learn and interesting people to meet, they are inevitably also long stretches of time where literally every minute from waking to sleeping is occupied by being around other people, often listening/watching very intently so that you don’t miss anything/anyone that you’ll never/rarely get another chance to see.

Every minute, there are demands on your attention, your memory and your energy. Every minute, you are potentially making an impression on someone new. Every minute, you’re wondering when you’ll next get to sit somewhere quiet and just digest everything that’s going on around you. And every minute, you remember that this break time is probably still hours, or even days, away.

Wow. I feel tired just writing all that.

In describing the world from a more introverted perspective, I find myself using one adjective more than any other: draining. It’s so perfectly descriptive of the feeling I get: surely, I must have had a full store of energy and enthusiasm to begin with… but before long, I can’t even remember ever having had it. As the day(s) go(es) on, my energy just slowly seeps away. And maddeningly, I can see it happening, like water gradually swirling down the drain after a bath, and I feel powerless to prevent it.

But there are things I can do. To stop a bathtub from draining, you can put the plug back in. Is there a mental/emotional equivalent? I think so…

At last year’s IATEFL conference, I decided to start trying some new strategies for coping with the overwhelming exhaustion of the week. I’m sharing these here in the hopes that I’ll remember to do them at IATEFL next month, and that perhaps they’ll help someone else!

What introverts can do to survive/mitigate conference mania

1. At least 2 weeks before the conference (when you’re not yet feeling exhausted at the mere thought of it approaching), go carefully through the programme. Identify sessions you want to attend and use a ranking system to prioritise them:

  • Tier 1 = you absolutely must attend. No arguments. (For example: because you’re the one giving the presentation!)
  • Tier 2 = you’d really like to attend. You’ll aim to be there.
  • Tier 3 = looks interesting, but if you suddenly found yourself desperate for a break, you could disappear somewhere quiet during this session and not be too upset/somehow disadvantaged.

You could potentially add other categories/tiers as you see fit, but I think these are the three most important ones.

2. Colour-code these on a one-day-per-page print-out and keep it with you throughout the conference. If the conference programme doesn’t include a page-per-day mini-schedule, make your own in Microsoft Word and print that.

The third tier is crucial. Sometimes, I’m put on the spot during a conference by someone asking an innocent “Are you free now?” My tendency is often to panic and equate “well, I’m not attending a session” with “sure, I’m free to talk to you until I have another session to attend”, meaning I miss out on some much-needed break time. The third tier of colour-coding helps me avoid this. It allows me to relax during the conference by showing me at a glance when I will be able to excuse myself for a little while if necessary – i.e. if I find myself feeling too exhausted and overwhelmed to pay attention to anything outside my own head.

Here’s how a colour-coded conference planner might look when complete:

3. Acknowledge that there will be some times during the conference when you must be available for meetings, general mingling, etc. In other words, remember that if you’re attending a conference in any kind of professional capacity (as opposed to for general personal interest), you can’t just always be “in a session” or “AWOL” (probably hiding in your hotel room or a toilet cubicle). Well ahead of time, plan slots during the conference for some general “face time” and colour-code it as Tier 1, so that you don’t neglect your professional duties and you can work break times around this time.

4. Wake up early enough to have a morning routine which allows at least an hour all to yourself. This means at least an hour doing things that are not essential pre-conference-day activities (like eating or washing or checking emails). If you also plan to eat breakfast, shower and check/respond to emails, and the conference starts at 9am, this might mean getting up between 6 and 7; but as far as I’m concerned, it’s totally worth it.

Personally, in my “me hour” I like to do 30 mins of yoga and 30 mins walking/jogging outside the hotel to get some fresh air and daylight, as I might not have any for the rest of the day and I know that these are important for my mental health. I really believe this first hour of the day is crucial to spend awake, doing things that are quiet and private, even if you’ve been up late the night before and you’re tired. You have 2 choices in the morning: stay asleep for an extra hour, or be awake and alone for an extra hour. I’ve tried both and ultimately, my mental health and mood throughout the day are both improved more by the latter option of how to spend that hour.

5. Similarly, wake up early enough to have breakfast alone. I guess other people might not mind that much, but breakfast is one meal I just can’t eat while talking to people. I need time to wake up gradually and think about the day ahead without also having to make conversation.

With these simple strategies, I can plan in quiet personal time ahead of the conference so that I don’t need to think about it while I’m there, and this makes a world of difference to my conference experience. I still get to enjoy all the good bits, but without compromising my sanity!
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About Laura Patsko

Senior ELT Research Manager for a major publisher. Alter egos: English language teacher, language learner, teacher trainer, linguist. Not necessarily in that order.

6 comments

  1. Excellent post. Spot on. Yours, another introvert. 🙂

  2. Hi Laura! Thanks for writing the post, I empathise with the extended non-stop activity and social anxiety you’re talking about. This year at InnovateELT we’ll have an “introverts room” to give a quiet space where everyone can drop whenever they need 🙂 I hope it would help people feel more comfortable and relaxed! Berta.

  3. Nicola

    I can relate to some of this though the only part of conferences I hate is anything with no structure ie breaks or get to know you activities. I HATE mingling and networking (though am happy to talk to people if they talk to me).and starting a conversation with some random person I don’t know is toe-curling to me. Thank God for smartphones and toilets so I can either look busy or hide in breaks. I agree with you, “breaks” is more apt. I suggested to a conference organiser once that they set up an introvert’s room for breaks, but call it something else, and the entire point of it is that is a quiet contemplation room. Another introvert, listening nearby on his phone, soundly agreed and I think they’re going to do it 🙂 So, if they do it and if you’re there, I’ll nod to you from the other side of the quiet room where I’ll be taking a much needed respite every “break” 🙂

    • Hi Nicola
      I’m guessing your comment and Berta’s relate to the same initiative to create an introverts’ room! I’ll be very interested to know how it goes. Personally, I think I’d prefer to escape somewhere on my own rather than be in a room with others, even if there’s an agreement not to do activities or talk. But I think it’s a great idea for conference organisers to do anything they can to accommodate people’s different preferences for group/solitary time without anyone feeling like they’d someone be judged or miss out.
      See you at a conference soon – a nice quiet one, perhaps! 🙂
      Laura

  4. This is great, Laura. I wouldn’t describe myself as introvert but I know all about feeling anxious at conferences. I spent a whole day “AWOL” in Liverpool (I was hiding in my hotel room) and you were around when I struggled one year later in Harrogate. I will be employing my own strategies at Glasgow this year, some which are similar to some of yours – such as focusing on my own mental wellbeing. It might be a spot of mindfulness or relaxation techniques (maybe even yoga!) to start or end the day. Breakfast is for having alone, I agree. There is the rest of the day to talk to others. But I am also going to be selective with what I go to, also like your tiered system. It will be my second time at conference in Glasgow (after 2012) and I like to compare my own strategy with how I approached the Glastonbury music festival the first time (2000), then the second time (2004). The first time I was running around like a headless chicken trying to catch as many acts as possible. The second time, I was far more selective and had more contemplative time between performances. At conference we need even more time to stop and contemplate..

    • Hi Phil
      Glad you found something that resonated with you here. Hope to run into you again at the conference next month – but of course, if we cross paths at breakfast, I promise *not* to say hello. 🙂
      Laura

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