Why Conferences Are an Introvert’s Nightmare (and How to Cope)

IntrovertDear.com conference introvert nightmare

About a month ago, our family attended a large conference for four days. I already know what you’re thinking. A large conference, for an introvert? That’s just asking for trouble!

And yep, sure enough, before we had even stepped through the doors and into the first session, my anxiety was peaking.

Before I discuss the experience I had attending the conference (as an introvert with high sensitivity), let me paint a different picture. This is probably what the more extroverted attendees saw:

There were over 4,000 people, lots of great music, excellent keynote speakers, and some great master classes. And there was a concurrent kids conference, too! They catered for attendees and their children. There was a bookstore and an onsite food court so you didn’t have to leave for meals.

They had thought of everything.

But as I sat in each session, I couldn’t help but wonder: Was there something missing?

There was. It seemed they had forgotten about us introverts.

Research suggests that 30-50 percent of the population are introverts, so there had to have been many other introverts at the conference — which means many other people experienced it as I did.

What a Large Event Is Like for an Introvert

A large, noisey conference is the antithesis of what we introverts prefer and crave — especially us highly sensitive introverts. As soon as I walked through the doors of the main auditorium, my senses were thrown into overdrive. I instinctively wanted to cover my ears and find a dark corner to hide in.

Wedged in the middle of a long row, I fought off a panic attack during one keynote speech. Thankfully, before this particular session, my 4-year-old had refused to go to her respective conference, and I was able to use her as an excuse to escape to the foyer.

At every mastermind coffee break, I hunkered down at a table, over my coffee and phone, hopeful no one would catch my eye and attempt small talk — but that just lead to me feeling guilty for not networking.

At the end of every day, I was completely spent. My ears were ringing, and I felt completely wrung out. I even wondered if I should bother going back the next day.

But I did. In the end, I survived — but only by an inch!

The fallout from this conference wasn’t just that I got some great inspiration and teaching. I came away deciding that this was the last conference I would ever attend.

Now, a few weeks later, after I’ve had some downtime to recover, I realize that this probably won’t be my last conference ever. I’m sure I’ll end up attending more events like this.

But next time, I need a better way to cope.

Conference Tips for Introverts

Here are seven things I’ve learned about getting through a large conference or event as a highly sensitive introvert.

1. Charge up your introvert battery prior to going.

Know what your introverted self needs and take measures to get it in abundance before you go. Make this a priority the week before. For me, this would look like a few extra solo runs in the mountains.

2. Be intentional about self-care during the conference.

The most helpful thing you can do for yourself is plan your downtime in advance. If you don’t, all your time at the conference will get gobbled up with invitations for post-session drinks and catch-ups during breaks — trust me. Try setting aside a night in the middle of the conference to get dinner by yourself or relax in your hotel room alone.

3. Don’t give in to FOMO.

The fear of missing out can be the biggest cause of lost self-care opportunities. Do you need to attend every session of the conference? Could you prioritize and miss one or two for that badly needed quiet space? Yes, yes you can.

4. Network the introvert way.

Yes, conferences are a great chance to network, but as an introvert, you won’t have the energy to meet everybody. Pick a couple of key people who you want to connect with and make your chatter purposeful. Try asking them if they’d like to move to a quieter area or even go offsite for a one-on-one chat over coffee.

And be honest. If you know you can only manage a 10-minute chat, let them know from the start. (“I only have a few minutes, but I really wanted to say hello!”)

5. Use small talk to your advantage.

When it comes to networking, approaching someone you don’t know can be intimidating. That’s when some strategic small talk can help. Try, “So, what brought you here today?” or “How did you hear about this event?” Then, take your conversation to the next level by using these hacks to turn small talk into more meaningful conversation.

6. Or don’t network! But don’t feel bad.

No one says you have to network — even if your boss paid for you to attend. If you don’t want to, you don’t have to. Decide instead to use the time to re-energize so you can get through the rest of the conference.

7. Take ear plugs.

I’m not kidding. This tip is especially essential for those of us who are sensitive to noise. While I absolutely loved the music at the conference, it was too loud, too often. Keeping earplugs in my purse or bag would have been a great tool to help me get through the day. 

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Emma Scheib gained her Masters in Psychology in 2013 and has since worked full-time in corporate research positions for government agencies. She recently gave up her "dream job" to pursue being a (happier) mum, living a slower pace of life. She is also dipping her toes back into her long lost love, creative writing. She writes regularly over at Simple Slow & Lovely, and you can also connect with her on Facebook and Instagram.