Making a conference introvert-friendly

Image: Joe Wolf via CC BY-ND 2.0

I need your help, because I was asked a question and didn’t know the answer.  Read on…

Conferences are an important part of life as a scientist.  They’re a valuable part of network-building and a chance to exchange the newest ideas, the newest techniques, and the newest results.  But they’re also exhausting – and particularly so for scientists who are introverts, and find the crowded rooms and halls and the non-stop social interaction draining.  Plenty of scientists are introverts – I’m one – and so this isn’t a trivial issue.  I wrote some time ago about how I manage going to conferences as an introvert.  But until just last week it never occurred to me to wonder about the issue from the other end:  to wonder what conference organizers might do to make conferences more welcoming to introverts.  It was a question over Twitter from Danielle Staudt, a conference organizer, that did it:

I’m amazed and embarrassed never to have asked myself this question.  After all, I’ve thought a lot about the introvert-conference fit from my own perspective as a conference-goer; and I’m in the throes of organizing a conference myself*.  I’m even more amazed that I don’t have an answer; in fact, I can’t even quite decide if making conferences more introvert-friendly is a good idea or a bad one.  So this post has two purposes.  First, writing it may help me figure out what I think.  Second, I hope that you’ll have suggestions, and that you’ll leave them in the Replies.

A quick, but important, note before continuing: it’s important that we make conferences welcoming to everyone.  By posting about introverts, I am *not* suggesting that this human dimension is more important than (or even as important as) diversity in gender, sexual orientation, career-stage, or anything else.  It isn’t. It’s just the thing I’ve been asked about.

So, to the question at hand.  It seems to me that making a conference more comfortable to introverts could mean one of two things.  It could mean making it possible to attend a conference with less need to interact with hordes of other people; or it could mean making those interactions easier.  My first thoughts were along the former lines.  After all, when I’m at a conference, it’s important to me to take breaks from the hordes so I can sit alone and recharge my social batteries.  So my mind jumped immediately to “Quiet spaces!” “Longer breaks!” and “No sit-down banquet!”.  But here’s the problem:  while alone time is important to me at a conference, I don’t actually want it to be too easy to find**.  The value in a conference comes from human interaction; and while I have to duck some of that to make the experience work for me, I need to work at ducking as little as possible.

That leaves the second possibility: not helping introverts avoid those social interactions, but helping us engage in them.  This seems like a much better idea, but one on which I have few suggestions to offer. A few thoughts (all of which are tentative, so please use the Replies to comment):

  • Build in tweet-ups, put social media handles on nametags, and otherwise facilitate the conversion of online familiarity into in-person familiarity. I’ve found that “Oh, I follow you on Twitter” takes a surprising amount of the awkwardness out of meeting a new person.
  • Have a variety of social events or field trips organized around non-academic interests. A smaller group united by interest in hiking, or art galleries, or music can make interaction easier.  Make these happen early in the conference, so that sets of small-event buddies can interact afterwards.  (I’m tempted to suggest running field trips before, rather than after, the conference for this reason, although perhaps that’s unusual; I don’t think I’ve ever taken a pre-conference field trip.)
  • Have volunteers at big networking events whose job it is to watch for, and engage with, people who are hanging back from the crowd. (This is a suggestion from Danielle.)
  • Use systems of nametag ribbons or buttons to identify subgroups sharing research interests, regional or taxonomic affiliations, etc. This could help people find those with which they share common interests, again easing the awkwardness of a new meeting.  (The Ecological Society of American, for example, has quite a few chapters whose members get identified with ribbons; I wonder if this helps in the way I’m suggesting.)
  • Ask each old fogey at the conference to deliberately meet and talk with early-career attendees. Perhaps this could even be formalized, with first-time attendees matched up with volunteer veterans? The Ecological Society of America has a SEEDS mentorship program that does exactly this (and more) for undergraduate attendees.  Would it scale up to other less veteran groups?

But that’s it – that’s all I’ve got, and I’m not even sure these ideas are great.  So: over to you.  Should conference organizers do something to improve the introvert experience?  And if so, what?

© Stephen Heard  March 15, 2018

Thanks to Danielle Staudt for suggesting this post, and to Monica King and Ian Street for suggestions via Twitter.  Ian has also written a post about attending a conference as an introvert, which complements mine; his is here.

*^The 2019 joint meeting of the Canadian Society for Ecology and Evolution and the Entomological Society of Canada.  Which is going to be a great meeting; you should come! (Of course I’m not organizing it all by myself.)

**^Well, actually, yes I do.  But I want lots of things I know I shouldn’t want, and this is one of them.


16 thoughts on “Making a conference introvert-friendly

  1. Elina Mäntylä

    At the latest European Ornithologists’ Union conference in Turku, Finland ( some of the participants had a bird species name printed on their badge. Usually the person was studying that species. And there was a competition to gather all 50 species (if I remember the amount correctly). This was a good icebreaker. “Oh, you are the common crane. What are you studying with that species?”

    Also conference excursions are excellent places to chat about science or other topics. Vineyard tours, river cruises, walks in nature etc. I always join those because as an introvert, the excursions are the best places to chat with fellow attendees. 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Mike Kokkinn

    My favourite conference experience was skipping some sessions in favour of playing table tennis (doubles only) in a room nearby with other conferees. Many of them were from areas way outside mine and they were definitely introverts. I think I picked up more snippets of interesting science conversation after a game of table tennis than sitting in the hall listening to papers.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. amlees

    I think they’re all great ideas. Definitely lots of different ice-breakers are good.
    How about also:
    If you’re arranging a dinner, have named places (sort by interest or research field or which session their presentations are), so that people don’t have to panic about where to sit or who to sit with.
    Arrange a welcome session where all the important people introduce themselves (lecture style, rather than standing around awkwardly style), and plant people in the audience to ask questions that people who are new and scared might not know.
    Arrange transport from each hotel that people are staying at to the conference venue. This would be useful for a bunch of students staying in a cheaper hotel who don’t know anybody or anything.
    I think you should arrange pauses between sessions, and make it easy for people to have ‘quiet time’ in the pauses, rather than having coffee-breaks in which people are expected to network. You can arrange sessions for ‘networking’ on top of the quiet pauses, but everybody needs breathing space during the day, even if they aren’t introverts. Also, this helps people with reduced mobility get from one place to another.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim Robertson

    Steve: having many times been an introverted conference attender as well (maybe you got your introvert genes from me?) I think the “off-topic” field trips before the conference is an excellent idea and keep the number of attendees per trip on the small side. The ribbon approach also sounds like a good one.
    Not sure about the social media handles on name tags is as good as you have to get very close, and talk to a person, to read his name tag and introverts aren’t likely to do that.
    Having an old fogey/conference veteran contact newbies is helpful, except they may tend to be extroverts and sometimes “they” can turn “us” off🙂
    What about having signed/designated gathering spots at cocktail parties/break areas indicating specialties/interests?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. David Mellor

    Variation on the tweet-up suggestion: Provide tools for audience participation that can be used online. ( uses short codes that presenters show on their first slide (or maybe the session facilitator writes on a large whiteboard) and audience members submit questions through their online interface. It not only encourages folks to submit questions who would otherwise not be willing to, but allows for Q&A to occur for a while after the session and can help people to connect in person later.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Eryne Croquet

    I love some of these ideas, especially pre-conference field trips. It might be a nice way to learn about complementary research topics and help attendees plan what sessions to attend. A suggestion is to provide information about nearby walks or trails. For example, there could be an informal lunch walk where someone familiar with the trail attends to show attendees the trail? Then people could recharge and also do light networking to meet other introverts or lunchtime walkers.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Jeremy Fox

    Some of these suggestions already exist. For instance, most (all?) field trips associated with the ESA annual meeting are before the meeting, not after. The ESA also tries to use its many sections (Statistical Ecology section, Natural History section, etc.) in part as a way to generate interaction and connect students with mentoring. For instance, at the opening mixer there are are little tables, one for each section. If memory serves (and apologies if it doesn’t), each section is asked to provide a couple of volunteers who will hang out at their section’s table and chat with anyone who comes by. The sections each have their own mixers to which section members are invited. And some sections (the Theory Section is one) have various ways to hook people who want a bit of informal mentoring up with mentors. I know that isn’t exactly what your post is about, but it’s related.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Liz

    How about a science version of a ‘buddy bench’? Lonely kids at playgrounds sit on the bench when they’d like to be invited to play with others, and then other kids come get them ( I find that I often am looking to find someone new to talk with, but have trouble getting a new conversation going. I end up spending a lot of time wandering the fringes of social events and hoping someone approaches me instead! It would be much easier to have a defined spot to hang out, with the explicit directions that people are supposed to come and chat.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. SJM

    I love a lot of these ideas (especially the “buddy bench” idea from Liz). I also think it’s a good idea to ask labs or people that travel to the conference as a group to try to keep an eye out for people who are alone and to try to include some of those people in your group (especially during the social events). I think it’s a lot easier for a group to approach someone than for one person to approach a group. This has happened to me before at conferences, and I’ve always felt grateful to those people, especially when they extend invitations to exchange contact info and meet up later.

    As a side note, I’ll be traveling to ESA for the first time this year, so I really appreciated Jeremy’s comments. How many people tend to go on the field trips? I’m wondering just how intimidating it might be to participate in a conference field trip without knowing anyone else there.


    1. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

      SJM, I have been to several field trip where I did not know anyone else. I have an overly honest opening:
      “Hi! I don’t know anybody here. I’m Emilie, I study plant-herbivore interactions. What about you?”
      It works well. I would also consider myself as an introvert, but who’s trying hard not to be. Social interactions at conferences are exhausting, but the smaller field-trip groups help. It’s also less noisy and you don’t have to yell to hear people.


  10. Adrian Crisostomo

    Was reading about managing conferences when I stumbled upon this post of yours and I never considered introverts and I almost forgot that I am an ambivert. An idea popped up and I thought why not make some activities that they can do for themselves? Encourage conference participants to make their booths introvert friendly. I don’t think its a good idea to force introverts into conversations because, they’re introverts.


  11. Pingback: Posts for conference season | Scientist Sees Squirrel

  12. Pingback: Diversity in Ecology: Introverts | Journal of Ecology Blog

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