5 Things to Suggest at Your Next Conference

A recent education conference I attended had a packed schedule: multiple sessions, lunch in a large common meeting area, and additional sessions afterward. By the end of the day, I was exhausted. I had been networking and constantly connecting with others, which had made me feel disconnected from myself. It’s not that the conference was bad; it was amazing. However, it was also exhausting for me as an introvert to function in this space.

In my experience, conference organizers tend to focus on maximizing social interaction. There’s often a high-energy buzz with the noise and chaos serving to remind attendees that they are part of something big. With a high premium on face time, organizers often pack the schedule with opportunities to meet new people.  

As an introvert, I’ve found that the opportunity to get away and reflect on what I am learning is important. Here are a few of my ideas on how conferences can better accommodate introverts:

  1. Avoid the ice breakers. Most of the extroverts I know will break the ice the minute they walk into the room. Meanwhile, the introverts don’t mind letting the ice melt slowly. I always cringe when I’m in a room full of strangers and suddenly I am being asked to find signatures in People Bingo. If you want introverts to build relationships over the course of a conference, let them do it naturally. Let introverts get to know people on their own terms. Let them start with sharing their expertise.
  2. Let attendees choose their seats. I’ve noticed that in many sessions and workshops, the facilitator will use a cooperative learning strategy to get people sitting away from their friends. Although I understand the need to get out of one’s comfort zone, too much disruption gets in the way of learning. If three colleagues are choosing to sit together, there’s a good chance they have developed a relationship of trust. Why not allow them to work together in a trusted space? If introverts spend the entire day engaging in small group conversations with strangers, they will eventually wear out.
  3. Build silence into the sessions. For all the talk of the importance of reflection, sessions and workshops rarely build in longer periods of silence to think and reflect. Even a simple “think” before pairing up or sharing with a group can allow an introvert to process information internally before talking to a small group. I wonder what it would look like to create sessions built entirely around silence. Attendees could write, reflect, design, or make. Self-paced, they could be linking what they have already learned with their own learning process.
  4. Create solitary spaces. Often conferences are held in large, open spaces. The furniture is designed to facilitate group conversations. Lunchtime becomes a loud cacophony of conversations with little chance to get away and embrace silence. What if conferences set up small spaces designed for individuals to be away from the crowd? What if they created enclaves where it was socially acceptable to be alone?
  5. Give credit for independent work. If an introvert attends a session and then skips out to sit down and journal about it, there’s a good chance he or she will not get professional development credit. In many cases, this is viewed as “ditching” a session. I would love to see conferences create opportunities where individuals can attend solitary sessions during which they can curate information, reflect on what they’ve learned, or create something new based on the information in a previous session.

This isn’t simply a matter of “accommodating” introverts. Accommodation suggests that there is something inherently wrong with needing silence, space, and solitude. Instead, it’s a matter of allowing all conference attendees the opportunity to thrive and get the most out of the conference. Allowing attendees to use the strengths in their individual temperaments can create a better conference for the whole group. Wouldn’t that be a conference you’d like to attend?