Spring. A season for flowers, showers and… conferences! Everyone’s filled with excitement to see telco and electric co-op friends in person. My spring conference season kicked off with StoryConnect: The Conference. Next week our team will be split coast-to-coast between NTCA’s Marketing & Sales Conference in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, and NRECA’s CONNECT conference in Seattle, Washington. It feels like every week offers a new opportunity to share ideas and learn from peers.

We spend a lot of time talking about marketing campaigns, social media management and the importance of content planning. But I’m often struck by how much one simple rule—invest time in people—has guided my career.

I haven’t seen many of our peers for months or years (thanks, COVID-19). I plan to spend a good deal of time getting and giving HUGE hugs. Why? Because I care about each person I meet along the way.

I know what you’re saying. That’s easy for an extrovert. Those folks THRIVE off the energy in a crowded room. But here’s the kicker: 

I’m an introvert.

After a three-day conference, I enter stealth mode at home. I curl up on the couch with a book, binge a sci-fi show, or quietly work on a LEGO creation with my daughter. My energy stores are depleted. Until personal energy storage technology improves, this is my conference energy cycle.

How do I balance my need for quiet with the conference reality of building and maintaining a network over several jam-packed days?

I believe introverts bring a different set of skills to classic networking events. By focusing our strengths in unique ways, we can build friendships that last a lifetime.

Are you an introvert? Here are five ways to not only survive, but THRIVE at your next conference.

1. Be real

Meetings are flooded with fake smiles. When people try too hard or want something from us, we build walls. To counter this, always be genuine. As introverts, we tend to avoid small talk. I see this as a strength. Don’t be afraid to have real conversations. Be the person others can talk to about anything. Be real.

2. Connect with early risers

I’m not sure if this is true in every industry, but I’ve met some amazing people the hour or so before an agenda’s start time. Leave your room early. Search out the coffee, and you’ll find people traveling on their own who are normally at work at this hour. Introduce yourself, but feel free to skip the small talk. Ask what they’ve learned so far with value, and follow up with questions about what challenges they’ve tackled lately. Not many people are out this early, so it’s a great way to have a real conversation with one or two people without feeling anxious about being in a crowd. Odds are the people you meet will be introverts, too.

3. Listen

We are constantly talked at, whether in sessions, at vendor booths or in the hallways. But introverts have a super-secret skill: We listen. Sometimes listening is the best gift we can offer. More often than not, you’ll learn something, too.

4. Avoid the clump

It never fails—people from the same company and/or state tend to stick together. This defeats the purpose of the conference. We can only find new ideas when we get out of our comfort zone. And while I know it’s easier to eat dinner with people you already know, you are doing yourself a disservice. At your next conference, sit next to a stranger. Say hello. You might meet your new best friend. Seriously. I live in Georgia. I met one of my best friends at a conference many, many years ago. She lives in Oregon. We work together all the time now, and I crash at her house whenever I’m in Portland. Who knew?

What do communicators from Oregon, Idaho and Georgia have in common? Everything. Brenda, left, is an editing whiz who specializes in Northwest public power stories. Jeff’s social media tone for Clearwater Power is almost as amazing as his custom LEGO builds of bucket trucks and lineworkers. Branch out at conferences to build your knowledge base!

5. Conferences do not end at the last session

I’ve spoken at regional, statewide and national meetings for two decades. Over that time, I’ve watched as other speakers leave the podium… then leave the room. I know you’re tired. Conferences take a LOT out of me. But whether it’s going on a boat ride in Florida, taking a ghost tour of Seattle or joining two or three folks for a quiet dinner, always spend time with other attendees. Fight your impulse to go back to your hotel room and order in.

By investing time with people, you tell them they are WORTH your time. Your absence sends a message, too.

I hope this gives you more confidence for your next meeting. Remember to have a few days after a conference with absolutely NOTHING scheduled. You’ll need the time to recharge. But I promise investing time in relationships is the most worthwhile thing you can do at a meeting.

I’ll be in Seattle. Let’s connect.