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How to Engage Introverts at Conferences

By Jez Paxman
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Participative learning, collaborative working, audience led content - events are changing, and for the better. But with this shift to more involved formats there’s a danger that we alienate a large part of the audience.

One of the crowd

Susan Cain estimates that between a third and half the population is introverted. To understand the real differences between introvert and extrovert personality types take a look at her phenomenally popular TED Talk. In short, introversion is a preference for reflective, minimally stimulating environments. Shyness is very different it’s a fear of negative judgment. And, as she points out here, there are many shy extroverts.

As conferences shout about ‘speed networking’ and ‘rocket pitches’ a growing number of people quietly decline to attend. In the world of internal communications, where attendance is often mandatory, these formats can cause real stress (I’ve heard people in focus groups talk about being physically sick before having to go to an event that simply hasn’t been designed with them in mind).

Should we abandon all thoughts of participation for fear of appealing to only the most unabashed of extroverts? The answer is definitely not.

Firstly, as Jeff Hurt has persuasively argued, it is a myth to suggest that introverted audiences don’t value participative formats. And, secondly, the fundamental value of people coming together at conferences in 2014 isn’t in pushing information (that’s what the internet is good at) but in sharing ideas, pollinating new thinking, starting conversations – all things that are best done participatively.

So how can we design participative events that don’t alienate huge swathes of our audience?

Event Communications

Avoid shouty jargon that leaves your would be audience uncertain as to what the event will involve - no one knows what a collaboration zone will entail. Be clear about how the participative elements will be run and how they’ll add value. Encourage people to start building relationships with one another prior to the event and contributing to the content at their own pace.

Format

Use research from past events and pre-event comms to gain an understanding of the content individuals will value. Then tailor a format that allows small groups to engage in active learning around the topics of relevance to them.

Design a narrative that naturally steps people towards collaboration. This shouldn’t mean having to spontaneously share thoughts with the entire audience rather it should see people working together in more intimate twos or threes. Allow time for people to reflect on things and encourage solo flights of thought before they collaborate.

Consider the physical setting, provide quieter seated areas where people can have deeper conversations or simply recharge. Think about the duration of your conference and ensure that people feel able to skip fringe drinks receptions.

Facilitation

A traditional one-way presentation format has no need for facilitation, but as you involve your audience more the need for support increases. Good facilitators are expert at appealing to all personality types and will help you avoid the pitfalls you might find on the path to delivering a more participative event.

Q&A

Move your Q&A from being the preserve of the vocal few by using an app. Some of these go beyond simple question functionality and allow the audience to see all the questions being asked and vote the most pertinent to the top. Ensure people can ask questions via digital channels at any point before, during or after the event.

Networking

Encourage people to self-categorise on registration and to book one-on-one meet-ups during the event with people they're likely to share genuine interests. Use topic zones or topic tables to make the networking more efficient and less reliant on small talk. In short, deliver context.

Social Media

The social channels around your event are the perfect place for people to connect and contribute on their own terms. The key is integrating the social content back into the event and vice versa.

In Conclusion

For events to deliver true value they need to treat the audience as participants. But in doing this we have to be mindful of the full spectrum of personality types. If we design events that appeal only to extroverts we not only alienate a large proportion of the audience we lose the reflective expertise and focus that introverts bring to the world.

about the author

Jez Paxman
helped found Live Union based on a belief that the role and value of live experiences within the communication landscape was changing. An approach anchored in understanding where the true value lies for the audience has seen Live Union build a client base that includes EDF Energy, Oracle, AXA, TripAdvisor, Kennedy Space Center and Amnesty International.
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  • Jessica Loomis

    These are amazing tips I will definitley be using this to help our students talk to employers at our next career fair!

  • Great artcile Jez! It’s not only introverts who are often left out at the conferences. Studies show that a staggering 74% of people fear public speaking! Therefore, as you said, giving the audience a simple tool to ask questions can dramatically increase the engagement at the conference. Looking forward to reading more of your articles!

  • Ed Bernacki

    This is a start of a good conversation. I read Susan Cain’s book, QUIET. It is very interesting and an overlooked, yet obvious source of insight and ideas. Unless we believe that all people think alike, then we must start address some of the obvious differences in people and the way they think and see the world.
    I would wonder about the value of digital technologies…..I think we need to consider whether and if many introverts actually want to connect with others. We need to be careful with stereotypes. What we really need is some robust research on interesting topics like this.

  • Festival Edge

    I know as someone with introvert tendencies, I don’t often think quick on my feet during a Q&A. Sometimes hours later, I think of something I would love to have asked. Gathering questions before and after a session is a great idea.

    • They call that l’esprit d’escalier.

      It means staircase wit, or when you think of something funny or
      insightful way after you should have said it. Don’t worry about it, it gets me all the time.

      • Festival Edge

        I love that word…when I can’t think of something smart I’ll use it

  • Some really good points. I think the ability to encourage participation without alienating a lot of the crowd who aren’t feeling ‘up-to-it’ is a really valuable one.

    You see this ability a lot of the time in performers and speakers who know how to interact with a crowd. If you go gung-ho, it can really backfire – but if you create a good atmosphere (a hallmark of effective event planners), it can really help to make people feel comfortable and maybe, just maybe, want to participate.

    • And also a reason to embrace great facilitation. Thanks for taking the time to comment. Love the expression l’esprit d’escalier.