Conference networking for the socially awkward introvert: how to make friends without talking

Conference networking for the socially awkward introvert: how to make friends without talking

When I tell my friends and family I’m an introvert, they scoff in disbelief.

I was a precocious child. I got punished a lot for talking in class. I was Vice-President of my class, President of the international club and voted “Most Spirited.” But my lack of inhibition mostly came from a natural self-confidence and lack of self-awareness. I’ve been tamed. It started with my year abroad in Argentina, where suddenly the culture and language barrier put me at a distinct disadvantage. I became, I suppose, a forced introvert.

After nearly a decade in Taiwan, I’ve gone much further into my shell. My Chinese isn’t good enough to be naturally fluent (to the point of joking around or having life-changing philosophical conversations) so I’m mostly gotten used to being mute. I became a watcher and observer. I still have a ton of self-confidence – on a practical level: I’m confident in my abilities to do things. And like many introverts, I am happiest working on my creative projects by myself, but I still enjoy being around people – once we’ve gotten to know each other.

But I didn’t realize how extremely socially awkward I’ve become until I went to a big entrepreneurial conference in Bangkok.

I’ve been to conferences before (like the World Domination Summit in Portland) and I’m not too terrible at interacting and making friends. Indeed (also like many introverts) I find I make a few real friendships but connect poorly to the larger crowd.

But this time it was different.

I was intensely self-conscious, fearful, socially awkward and strange. I had no conversational skills. I couldn’t start up conversations with people right next to me; I’d just make uncomfortable eye contact and maybe smile before running away. I usually kept my hands full with something or pretended to be busy on my phone.

And it sucked. It sucked because I’d paid to go to the conference; I was at least as successful as the average, probably doing much better than some; I had a lot of valuable experience I could have been sharing and I could have learned a lot; and mostly, because the main point of going to conferences like these is to make personal relationships.

I had a good time, and I did meet some cool people, but I also feel like I blew it. Disappointed and frustrated with myself. I think I’d come to accept myself as an introvert and let it define me. But now I realize it’s a road block, a challenge. Even if you can’t change your personality (although I think maybe you can) there are times when introverts need to kick their own butts and try harder. Conferences are definitely one of them. So for myself, and you, I’ve put together some tips on how to maximize your time at a conference or convention, even if you’re a wall flower or terrified of talking to people. Some of these I figured out for myself, some of them I learned from very successful people who impressed me deeply by being awesome.

Conferences can feel like high-intensity networking marathons, especially for the introverted or socially anxious. But with some creativity and strategy, you can turn the event into an empowering experience. Here’s how:

1. Do Your Research:

Before you step foot in the venue, familiarize yourself with the key speakers, workshops, and attendees. Knowledge is power, and it can give you a sense of purpose and direction when deciding whom to approach.

2. Make it a Game:

Gamify the experience. For every person you speak with, give yourself a point. Set a daily target and reward yourself once you hit that number. This can shift your perspective from dread to playful challenge.

3. Focus on the Breakfast Table:

Breakfast is a less formal networking opportunity. It’s quieter, there are fewer people, and everyone needs to eat. Grab your breakfast and sit at a communal table, allowing for natural conversations to arise.

4. The 3-Second Rule:

If you see someone you’d like to connect with, give yourself three seconds to approach them. This minimizes overthinking and the chances you’ll talk yourself out of it.

5. Practice Introducing Yourself:

Rehearse a concise and interesting introduction. Practice it enough so it feels natural and engaging, setting a positive tone for any ensuing conversation.

6. Don’t be Afraid to Interrupt:

Although it may feel impolite, if you wait for the perfect moment, you might be waiting forever. Excuse yourself politely and join a conversation.

7. Embrace Your Mysterious Aura:

Let your social anxiety work in your favor. Instead of feeling out of place, allow it to give you an air of mystery. People are naturally curious about those who are a bit enigmatic.

8. Compliment and Run:

Give someone a genuine compliment and then move on. This can be a simple and effective way to make a positive impression without needing to engage in a lengthy conversation.

9. Leave Your Phone at Home:

Without the safety net of a smartphone, you’ll be more inclined to engage with your surroundings and the people in it.

10. Set Goals, Rewards, and Even Punishments:

Challenge yourself by setting a specific number of people to meet. Reward yourself for meeting that number and have a light-hearted punishment if you don’t.

11. Showcase Your Talents:

Find sessions or panels where you can share your expertise. Answering a question or sharing a tip can highlight your skills without seeming boastful.

12. Dress for Success (or Be a Peacock):

Your attire can be a conversation starter. Whether you opt for professional attire that boosts your confidence or something unique that stands out, use your clothing as a tool for engagement.

13. Kill the Small Talk:

Skip the weather talk. Ask intriguing, open-ended questions that invite thoughtful responses and create deeper connections.

14. The Power of Following Up:

Networking doesn’t end when the conference does. Send thank you cards or emails to people you connected with. It’s a gesture that will set you apart and solidify the bond you initiated.

Introversion or social anxiety doesn’t have to be a barrier to effective networking. By applying these strategies, you can maneuver through conferences with greater confidence, authenticity, and success. Remember, it’s about building meaningful connections, not just collecting business cards.

Introversion and social anxiety

I usually prefer to be a speaker, that way people know me and have a reason to talk to me. I’ve tried getting a table, but that’s the worst – you have to stand there and tell people about your book. I did that at a big London conference and hid under the tables (where my wife was napping).

I still attend conferences with fun stuff to give away or sometimes wearing something weird…

And over the years, despite the sheer terror of being all alone at a new conference where you don’t know anybody… but keeping my memberships and attending events, I’ve been nearly all my adult friendships. I’m genuinely grateful for all the amazing people I got to meet.

Conferences aren’t really about networking or promoting – you don’t need to be doing something. You can be doing anything or nothing. Keep it simple and fun. Don’t just talk about work or seek out influencers for benefits. Attract your people by being yourself (or, fake it with some of those tricks from up above to break the ice at least).

I’ve attended conferences around the world, shared panels with bestselling authors and personal idols, and tried to share as much help and value as I could. I’ve even rented some castles to lock up writers and force them to be friends with me.

Friendships can be forged quickly in a fun, fast-paced environment like a conference – and these can easily turn into all-night meaningful conversations like you haven’t had since high school. So don’t worry; fear the fear and do it anyway. Everybody is a weirdo. Latch onto a few key extroverts and follow them around, you do you.

Self-medicating for extroversion

If you’re an introvert, you probably shouldn’t be *forcing* yourself into becoming an extrovert… but for a short conference, it can help to remove your resistance and loosen you up a little. Most people self-medicate with alcohol or coffee – both of which don’t agree with me.

Here’s what I’ve found instead:

  • propanolol – removes that fight or flight panic, professors use it to give talks and remove nerves and shakiness. Gives you a calm balance
  • theanine – found in green tea but common in nootropics, balances with caffeine for a smooth clear focus
  • gabapentin – removes the dread and makes you much more social and talkative
  • huperzineA – allows you to skip some sleep and still be alert, but if taken for a few days can cause mania and hyperactivity
  • valium – keeps you calm but maybe too slow
  • ritalin – basically speed; it’ll make you shaky and hyper
  • nicotine – vaping is kind of douchy, but nicotine does give a calm sense of focus, and the easiest place to make friends is in the designated smoking area.
  • modafinil – greater verbal fluency, godlike overconfidence. Might make you an asshole by removing filters
  • cocaine – similar to ritalin and modafinil, not recommended for conferences
  • weed – if you get the right strain, it can make you wordy, friendly and calm. I usually prefer gummies for social events.
  • shrooms – makes you loving and deeply communal. Microdose only (unless everybody else is tripping too, depends on the conference)

The trick is, of course, to find the perfect balance – and I’ve definitely had experiences where I felt “too high” to function… but sometimes being a little too weird is better than keeping your mouth shut and being a wallflower.

If you’re having fun, the people around you will be too. Focus on having fun and liking people. Drugs aren’t necessary of course, and you should never have a first time experience at a conference! Try things out at home in a safe environment first and nail the dosage. I’m sharing them here because, you shouldn’t feel guilty about who you are or psychological/ physiological reactions you can’t control – but you also want to show people your best, true self – and there are supplements or nootropics that make that a little bit easier.

If you’re worried about losing control and doing something embarrassing, I’ll point out that I’ve seen many people get trashed on alcohol to the point of sloppiness, and I haven’t done that since college… nothing from the above list makes me lose control or get messy.

PS. Here’s some pictures from conferences around the world over the past few years.

Best writing and digital nomad conferences

I used to go to a lot of writing conferences, but they’re mostly geared to sell services to authors or help them pitch for a traditional publishing deal, and there wasn’t a lot of real, useful, honest tips (or when they were, they were so out of place and unexpected it felt weird).

My favorite and the largest, is the 20booksto50K group and Vegas conference (which I *might* try to go to this year if I finish some projects and make some money). For digital nomad groups and conferences, I’m in an entrepreneurial group called the Dynamite Circle.

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