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Conferencing While Introverted

Category: Annual Meeting
A hand holding a mug that says "busy introverting" against a pink backdrop.
Big, busy conferences can be a daunting prospect for introverts, but with a few tips in mind they can be a fun and rewarding experience. Photo by Elena Koycheva on Unsplash.

Something that I hear a lot of first-time museum conference attendees say is that they’re worried about being an introvert in such a demanding, extroverted environment. So I thought, for my official blog post as a 2019 Social Media Journalist, I’d share some things I’ve learned about conferencing while introverted while attending twelve conferences last year.

Because it was the largest conference I’ve ever attended, #AAM2019 in New Orleans was the most challenging of the conference experiences I had during the year. The conference was fantastic, and I’m so glad I went. But I’m not going to lie to you and say it was easy to hang out with five thousand people for three days. I had to pull out all my conferencing-while-introverted tools, some of which I’m going to share with you in this post.

If you yourself are introverted, hopefully these tips will help you master the art of conferencing, or convince you to attend a conference if you weren’t sure it was for you. If you are more extroverted, perhaps this post will help you improve the conference experience for your introverted colleagues.

You Aren’t Alone

First off, you aren’t alone. The museum field is practically teeming with introverts. To be fair, a lot of them, like me, are pretty outgoing, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t like you. It’s often people with the most prominent voices and personalities at conferences who turn out to be pretty introverted in other contexts. Personally, I turn ON at conferences. I become what I like to call “Peak Hannah.” If you’ve met me at a conference, you might think I was feeding off the energy to become a super extrovert. But I can only do that for a certain number of hours per day and days in a row. At the end of the day, I am completely drained, and it often takes me a full week to recover from an intense conference like AAM. Even if you are of the shy variety, know that the outgoing introverts at the conference can relate to your experiences.

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For my first few conferences, I felt kind of pathetic for not being able to keep up with attendees almost twice my age who could go out drinking after evening events and then be up bright and early for an 8 a.m. session. But once I started to talk about my limited emotional battery life to folks at conferences, I found a lot of kindred spirits.

Know Yourself

It’s ok if you don’t go to every session and event, meet fifty new people, and somehow also manage to go touristing in the conference location in your “spare” time.

Be realistic about how much energy you can spend every day being around and talking to so many other people. Plan your schedule accordingly. As a freelancer, one of my biggest priorities at conferences is to meet people, which means I almost always go to evening events. That means I won’t make the first morning sessions…ever. I know I’ll need that time to rest and get a quiet breakfast somewhere. I usually show up to the evening event as early as possible, put in a good hour and a half of socializing, and then leave early so I don’t max myself out.

I also try to stay farther away from the action, somewhere quiet within walking distance so I have a place to recharge and don’t have to talk to anyone before I’ve had breakfast. This also gives me a chance to see some of the city, because I almost never have the energy to do any touristing before or after the conference.

Networking is Just Being Nerdy with Other Museum Lovers

I know the idea of networking makes a lot of us introverts wish we had a shell to retreat into. But it can actually be a lot of fun. Don’t think about networking as having to meet lots of people and make important connections. Instead just focus on having a few enjoyable conversations about things you love; in this case, the topic is museums. I can actually be quite socially awkward outside of conference situations, but at conferences, I feel more confident talking to strangers because I know we have a shared interest and passion. The key is just to get the other person talking about that passion, and voila…you are networking.

In my job as a podcaster, I’ve gotten quite good at getting other people to talk about themselves. Drawing from that experience and my conference adventures, here are my top conversation starters for museum conferences:

  • Tell me about your museum.
  • What are you working on right now?
  • What’s new and exciting at your museum?
  • Are there any museums you are planning to check out while you are here?
  • Are there any sessions on your must-attend list?

Once you’ve had a nice conversation, then feel free to ask the other person for their card. Send them an email when you get home, saying something like, “Hey, I really enjoyed chatting about your new exhibit at the evening event. Good luck with the install!”

When the conversation is waning, just say something like, “Hey, so nice talking to you. I’m going to wander around/grab some more snacks/look for a friend/check out X. See you around!” You are then free to meet more people or go back to your hotel and watch TV. Your call.

The Magic of Twitter

Last, but not least, I’d like to praise the value of Twitter for introverts at conferences. I love to live-tweet sessions and follow along on the hashtag (I wrote a whole guide to live-tweet here). This lets me be an active participant in the conference without having to talk to people in person. It also opens doors. A few years ago, I live-tweeted a session from a Danish digital strategist whose work I really admired. I tweeted about how much I LOVED that museum and how often I’d gone when I was on exchange in Copenhagen. At the break, he came over to say thanks for the kind words about the museum and we got to chat about my podcasting work (by the way: for this to work, you need to have a Twitter pic that looks like you so you are easy to spot).

Conclusion

Being introverted is not a barrier to making the most out of a conference. Just be yourself, know yourself, and take care of yourself. Oh, and come say hi to me if you see me at a conference.

About the author:

Hannah Hethmon is a producer and consultant specializing in all things podcasting for museums and other mission-based organizations. Through her production company, Better Lemon Creative Audio, she has produced content for the UK National Archives, the Smithsonian Institute Traveling Exhibition Service, the Vagina Museum, and The Peale Center. She is the producer of the podcast Museums in Strange Places and the author of the book Your Museum Needs a Podcast: A Step-By-Step Guide to Podcasting on a Budget for Museums, History Organizations, and Cultural NonprofitsShe’s on Twitter @hannah_rfh.


Feeling inspired? Apply now to join this year’s cohort of social media journalists at #AAM2020 in San Francisco! Get complimentary registration in exchange for sharing your experience with the field. For full details, see the application form. Applications are due by February 14, 2020.

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