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shana galen

An Introvert's Guide to a Successful Conference


When I first married my extroverted husband, I thought something was wrong with me. After a party or family get-together, he'd be so hyped he couldn't stop talking all the way home. Meanwhile, I would crave peace and quiet and a chance to recharge. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy the outings. I did. I had as much fun as he did, but by the end of the night, my energy was depleted, while his had received a huge boost. One day over coffee I mentioned this phenomenon to a friend. Her response? "There's nothing wrong with you. You're just an introvert."

Introversion and Extroversion Defined

At the time, I didn't have any idea what the term introvert meant. I thought introverts were shy, but introversion is not at all synonymous with shyness. Shyness is the fear of social disapproval, and that wasn't what I was feeling. In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain says what differentiates introverts and extroverts is the "level of outside stimulation that they need to function well." Introverts prefer less stimulation, while extroverts desire more. Introverts and extroverts also approach their work differently. According to Cain, "[e]xtroverts tackle assignments quickly...make fast...decisions, and are comfortable multi-tasking and risk-taking." Introverts, on the other hand, "work more slowly and deliberately...and can have mighty powers of concentration." Socially, introverts and extroverts are different as well. Extroverts are the life of the party. They like to talk more than listen, and they can be assertive and dominant. Introverts prefer one-on-one conversations, listen more than talk, and often approach small talk with horror.

Does any of this sound familiar to you? I'm willing to bet many of you are introverts as well. In fact, I haven't done any scientific research on this, but I would wager the majority of writers are introverts. A career as an author provides introverts with solitude, lower levels of stimulation, and the ability to put those awesome listening and observation skills to use.

The problem for the introverted writer arises when she must attend a writer's conference. We're out of our element there. Everyone is networking and schmoozing and (shudder) making small talk. But just because you're an introvert doesn't mean you're doomed to end up hiding in your room. In fact, there are definite advantages to being an introvert, and all you need to do to have a successful conference is take your unique introvert qualities and make them work for you.

I spoke to four self-proclaimed introverted authors—Grace Burrowes, Tessa Dare, Lorraine Heath, and Colleen Thompson—to find out how they not only survive, but thrive at writing conferences.

First, I wanted to know what these authors considered the advantages of introversion. As I said above, studies show introverts tend to have great concentration and focus. Tessa Dare (Say Yes to the Marquess) adds that "introverts tend to be reflective people with rich inner lives, and I think that helps us as writers. Good writers are good observers—not only of what's going on around them, but of what's going on inside." Grace Burrowes (Dancing in the Duke's Arms) sees introverts as "self-actualizing, never needing other people to start the introvert's engine. We can be happily productive in solitude, and many of us thrive on it. We're seldom bored or lonely—except possibly in a crowd."

Aye, there's the rub. Conferences are rife with crowds, which means it isn't the optimal environment for an introvert. And yet, a conference can be a great opportunity to, as Colleen Thompson ("Rescuing the Bride" in Cowboy Christmas Rescue) puts it, "fill the well sometimes with new experiences, new places, and new characters by drawing from real life too." The down side of being around all those people and activity is, as Lorraine Heath (The Duke and the Lady in Red) points out, introverts "can get lost in a crowd" and "begin to feel self-conscious because we're not 'out there'."

The Hard Thing About Conferences

Let's look at some of the aspects of conferences that are difficult for introverts and then address how an introvert might prepare for and avoid these difficulties.

First of all, know that even though it may seem like everyone else is breezing through the conference, you are not the only one who might be uncomfortable, tired, or looking for an escape. I asked Thompson, Burrowes, Heath, and Dare—bestselling authors many of us admire and look up to—what the hardest part of a conference was for them.

"Like most introverts," Thompson says, "I am utterly exhausted by social interaction. At home, I can recharge with alone time after a chapter or critique group meeting, but at RWA, I'm always afraid of missing something." For Burrowes it's the noise that's a factor: "The New York hotel [Marriott Marquis] has a lovely lobby/bar area which makes getting together with other people easy, but it's an atrium design, and the noise just ricochets off the hard surfaces. The noise is like a hundred micro-jackhammers on my nerves."

Heath often has difficulty approaching a group of people. She tends to "look for a solitary person so I know I'm not interrupting but there aren't many people standing around by themselves." Finally, Dare sums it all up by describing a conference like a "video game. I've got multiple 'life' bars I need to keep from running out, or else I will crash. They're labeled: Food, Sleep, Caffeine, and Quiet...My first few years at conference, I wanted to make the most of every single moment—and I didn't do a good job of protecting my social energy. As a consequence, I ran out of it. By Friday and Saturday, friends—and worse, strangers!—started greeting me with the dreaded, 'You look tired'."

Introverts have different needs than extroverts. We need quiet, solitude, and feel most comfortable with one-on-one conversations. As a result, many introverts (including myself!) tend to hang in the hotel room too much, skip dinners and mixers, stay away from the bar or other gathering places, or latch onto one friend and never meet anyone new. There's wisdom in these choices because they're survival instincts for an introvert, but we want more than survival at a conference. We want to leave feeling as though we accomplished our goals.

Why do introverts, knowing we have a need for quiet or solitude, sometimes ignore these essentials to our detriment? It's simple. Because the Western World has developed what's called The Extrovert Ideal, and we've been conditioned since birth to buy into it. The Extrovert Ideal is why we feel guilty when we're in our room alone instead of at the bar, why we feel like a loser when we aren't comfortable approaching a group, and why we feel overlooked when we don't talk enough in a crowd.

What is the Extrovert Ideal?

According to Cain, the Extrovert Ideal is "the omnipresent belief that the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight. The archetypal extrovert prefers action to contemplation, risk-taking to heed-taking, certainty to doubt...She works well in teams and socializes in groups." There's nothing wrong with extroversion. I'm married to an extrovert, and my daughter is an ueber-extrovert. I love them both (except when I want some quiet!). Cain argues the problem with idealizing extroversion is that it becomes an "oppressive standard to which most of us feel we must conform."

Think this is all just a bunch of theory? In Quiet Cain goes into detail about the rise of the Extrovert Ideal and its ramifications. She also notes it's "been documented in many studies...[t]alkative people...are rated as smarter, better-looking, more interesting, and more desirable as friends...we rate fast talkers as more competent and likable than slow ones. The same dynamics apply in groups, where research shows that the voluble are considered smarter than the reticent—even though there's zero correlation between the gift of gab and good ideas."

Don't despair yet! Cain also points out that "[s]ome of our greatest ideas, art, and inventions—from the theory of evolution to van Gogh's sunflowers to the personal computer" wouldn't have been possible without introverts.

How do we combat the Extrovert Ideal and the insecurities it brings with it at conferences? We use our unique introvert talents.

Studies show that, in general, introverts are focused, deliberate, great listeners, and enjoy deep discussions. They prefer planning to spontaneity, and they are skilled observers. You can probably think of other strengths you have. For example, I'm great at organizing. In recent years, I've begun to look at my unique introvert qualities as gifts and used them to my advantage at conferences. Since I like to chat one-on-one, I tend to reach out to authors or other professionals I want to meet with and schedule an hour alone with them. I stake out a peaceful place away from the hub of the conference and find having a quiet and meaningful conversation very refreshing before I head back to the bar or to a large luncheon.

For Dare "it's all about scheduling. I leave myself blocks of empty time, and during them I either go back to my hotel room or go for a solitary walk...getting that quiet time is just as important as setting aside time to eat and sleep." Heath sets up her calendar "using different colors to identify those items that I must attend versus those I'd like to attend. If I'm feeling overwhelmed, I give myself permission to skip the 'want' items." Similarly, Burrowes tries to "choose one or two workshops I WILL attend, because it's easy to drift up to my room or attach myself to a familiar face or two, when part of the joy of conference is to buff the craft."

Remember that introverts often excel at preparation. Thompson prepares for a meeting with an editor or agent by trying to "find out who their authors are/which books they've worked on so I can congratulate them on a recent success or compliment something of theirs I've read and enjoyed." My first few years at conference, I had such a difficult time with small talk, I would write down questions or topics of conversation on index cards before I left for the conference and look them over before I headed out of my room. Thompson and Burrowes also have a few icebreakers handy for when they meet someone new and want to bridge that awkward I-don't-know-what-to-say first moment. Suggestions include: What do you write? What are you working on now? Which sessions have you been to that were really helpful? Where are you from? What a lovely___. Do you recall where you got it?

Strategies and Success!

In Quiet, Cain notes that "at least one-third of the people we know are introverts." If you're an introvert, no matter where you go, you will be in good company. That's especially true at writing conferences. Dare says the best thing "about being a socially awkward penguin at conference is knowing you're in good company! We're all writers, and a good many of us are shy, introverted, or nervous with new people. Chances are the person next to you knows exactly how you're feeling."

Embrace your introversion and use it to your advantage. Here are a few tips for situations at conference introverts often find difficult.

  • Networking
    Instead of braving the bar on your own, schedule a drink with an author you want to meet either in the bar or in a quiet place. When you're done chatting, invite others you know to come and sit with you. If those big luncheons stress you out, plan to sit with a friend and then the two of you can find a table full of new people and meet them together. Keep your icebreakers (or index cards!) handy.
  • Pitching
    Use Colleen Thompson's strategy of doing your research. If you know the editor or agent you're pitching to, find out a bit about what he or she reads and who they represent or publish. As an introvert, you're a born listener, so give the agent or editor a chance to talk. Most of them are born talkers! When I used to pitch at conferences, I'd write my whole pitch on index cards (yes, more index cards!) and practice it over and over until I had it memorized and could deliver it slowly and with a bit of flair. I'd also write down answers to possible questions an agent might ask, so I'd have those handy in case I was nervous and couldn't think well extemporaneously.
  • The Booksigning
    If you're not signing, plan which authors you want to meet and when you've checked them all off, head somewhere quiet and less crowded. If you are signing, try a strategy taken from something called Free Trait Theory. Cain discusses it at length in Quiet and many introverts already use it without being aware they're doing so. In brief, Free Trait Theory says we're all born with certain fixed personality traits—introversion and extroversion among them. However, "introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly."

Introverts who are exceptionally good at employing Free Trait strategies are high self-monitors, meaning they study the behavior of the people around them and adjust their social behaviors to each situation. In other words, they fake it. I'm not suggesting you go through an entire conference pretending to be someone you aren't. This is a short-term strategy suitable for a cocktail party, a panel, or a booksigning. For two or so hours, imitate those authors you've met and whose behavior at booksignings you admire. Free Trait strategy may seem disingenuous, and if the idea offends you, then of course ignore it, but consider also the number of times you've heard readers recount meeting a favorite author and feeling as though she was cool, aloof, or uninterested in meeting readers because she didn't smile, talk, or meet their eye. If you don't know any of these stories, email me, because I have a dozen. Almost every time I hear one I think, that author wasn't being rude; she's probably just an introvert.

Writing conferences are a great place to reconnect with your tribe, learn from workshops and speakers, meet new authors or those you look up to, and cultivate face-to-face time with industry professionals. As an introvert, you can have a great time at conference with a bit of forethought. Burrowes suggests introverts "[t]ake your space, protect your breathing room." When you are in the thick of things, Thompson recommends "focusing on others rather than yourself...[i]f you listen more than you talk (and introverts are great listeners) you'll be surprised what great information you pick up."

Finally, give yourself permission to act more extroverted for that publisher dinner, booksigning, or the workshop you're giving. And Heath reminds us that despite what society may say "[i]ntroversion isn't a bad thing. It's okay not to be the one dancing on the table. Someone needs to watch. It's okay not to be the one regaling the group with stories. Someone needs to listen. It's okay not to be the center of attention. Someone needs to be on the outskirts, cheering."

© Shana Galen


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