Speaking to strangers is quite literally the stuff of nightmares for some people. But the PhD experience involves doing just that. In this article, Sophie Shorland runs though some tips on making the academic conference easier for introverts, as well as anyone new to the conference experience…
Congratulations, your abstract has been accepted for a conference! Your travel is booked, accommodation sorted and talk written: all you have to do is attend. This is the point at which many people start to panic, and not about giving the talk. The worry stems from that term fraught with negative associations: networking. Even if you’re going to the conference with your supervisor or colleagues, at some point during the day or days you will have to talk to strangers. You may even have to introduce yourself to a group of them.
This can be particularly stressful for people who identify as introverts, but regardless of where we stand on the introvert/extrovert spectrum, we all feel some anxiety about mixing with a group of strangers.
Partly it’s a matter of mindset: if you walk into a conference feeling that you need to make the greatest impression anyone has ever made, it’s going to increase anxiety levels a hundredfold. Perhaps the most useful piece of advice I have ever received is: No one is thinking about you. They’re all thinking about themselves. This may initially seem harsh, but turns out to be immensely freeing. Practice it over and over in your head before entering a conference, along with some deep breathing. By taking the pressure off yourself to be perfect, you can start approaching social interaction in a more positive way. Hopefully, attending conferences will even become a fun exchange rather than something akin to a dental exam.
With this in mind, there are some techniques specific to the academic conference setting that can help take the fear out of networking.
This might be exactly the opposite of what you want to do: it seems much easier to slip in and register five minutes before the talks start, and so avoid awkward conversation. But arriving before the rush starts means that you can have a brief chat with the organisers while you register, and they’re likely to introduce you to other attendees. You’ll also be able to talk to the other early birds before groups form, and in general it’s much easier to introduce yourself to a single person rather than insert yourself into a group of people who have already met (although this is of course something that’s completely fine to do).
You don’t have to go to every panel, and sitting out of the occasional one or finding a quiet space to retreat to for five minutes during a coffee break is nothing to be ashamed of. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the stream of new information, and conferences are intense, hectic experiences. It’s also part of what makes them fun. Taking a break can leave you refreshed and ready to dive back into discussion again.
Pick Your Moment.
There are easier and more difficult times to approach people and get talking. If you don’t feel comfortable introducing yourself to a group, that’s fine. Conferencing does get easier with practice. Instead, decide to introduce yourself to someone at an easier moment. Aside from addressing someone straight after their talk, ques for tea, coffee and lunch are natural introductory moments. A remark on the weather or conference setting is likely to be pounced on by the person next to you and will lead to an actual conversation. After all, they’re here to make friends too. And they’re thinking about their own social anxieties, not yours.
Sophie is a PhD candidate working on Early Modern Literature at the University of Warwick. She’s interested in Shakespeare, celebrity culture and early modern women’s writing. You can find her on twitter @sophie_shorland.