We share tips for producing events that even introverts will want to return to year after year.
Originally published in the Bizzabo Blog.
We know that networking is one of the main drivers for event attendance worldwide. We also know that networking activities often require a comfort level with socializing (and let’s be honest: LinkedIn stalking) that many of our guests don’t have. How might we design—and position—connection experiences at events that are inclusive of our less-extroverted participant base?
This year at C2 Montreal, one of the most popular braindate topics was, “Calling All Introverts: Let’s brainstorm better ways to network at events.” This topic received an impressive response: over 20 people booked it (it ranked among the top 10 most-viewed braindates at all of C2 2019), and many more requested to meet the braindater who originally posted it. So of course, we asked him to share what he learned.
We distilled down his ten hours (one-on-one braindates are 30 minutes each) of discussions with all 20 people into five top tactics related to concerns from real planners and participants around introvert-friendly engagement. Each “concern” listed comes from someone who engaged with this particular braindate topic. We’ve also included best practices related to each tactic, drawn from our experiences from six years of collaboration bringing Braindate to leading event industry pros who excel at creating universally engaging event content.
Here are our five key tactics to address top organizer challenges related to engaging participants of all social comfort levels with networking-related activities.
Tactic #1: Understand that being “introverted” isn’t the same as being “shy.”
I’m worried that the crowd might not participate as much, because they’re shy.
Confusing introversion for shyness is a common mistake. In reality, what it means to be an introvert or an extrovert is a matter of brain chemistry. Research has shown that the difference between the two could depend on a number of factors including our body’s rate of arousal or how our brains process external stimuli.
For the purposes of the event planner, an introvert isn’t someone who is necessarily shy—they’re just individuals who need time alone to recharge, and tend to value quality of interaction over quantity. Ultimately, understanding the needs of introverts and extroverts can inspire the event planner to create a unique experience that is inviting to participants from across the spectrum.
For example, Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, suggests including “recharge time” in the schedule as a way to help introverts feel “fully present and take more risks” at an event.
Tactic #2: Plan for safe spaces where participants can relax.
Each time I need to go to an event, I feel anxious. All the bells and whistles at trade shows just overwhelm me.
Continuously engaging with people or activities at events can be overwhelming for the best for us. If you’re a participant, make the map of the venue your best friend. Identify places you can go to find refuge in between your engagements.
If you’re the event organizer, consider planning for dedicated safe spaces where your guests can decompress and relax. The Braindate Lounge at the 2019 PCMA Convening Leaders is a great example of this. Steelcase Event Experiences created a lounge where participants could sit and talk with each other. With homey additions like sofas complete with blankets and throw pillows, Steelcase made the wide-open lounge feel intimate and comfortable.
The result: “Long after the planned program concludes, we observe attendees remaining in these environments — continuing intriguing discussions, sharing information, and having meaningful conversations. This serves as a confirmation that attendees experience a positive emotional connection.” (Melissa Holm, Creative Director, Steelcase Event Experiences).
Tactic #3: Provide your participants with tools to prepare in advance.
Whether onsite or offsite, I feel lost. I also don’t know where to go (and what places to avoid!), especially in a new city… I often end up going back to my hotel room during the day for a few hours.
Not knowing what to expect can be scary—especially if you feel risk-averse when it comes to new social situations. The best way to calm your nerves is to prepare for the event in advance. Identify the people you want to connect with, the knowledge you hope to gain, the location of relevant workshops, and even where to get the best coffee. Drive your experience with a feeling of intentionality.
If you’re the organizer, you can do some of this work for your attendees. You are the expert on the best that your event has to offer and what makes your city special. Provide your participants with this information before the event.
C2 Montreal sets the gold standard in many aspects of event planning. This is one of them. It prepares participants by letting them know what to expect, what to look forward to during the conference, and what to do after-hours. This includes lists of the best attractions in Montreal; helpful 101s on workshops and masterclasses; articles on how invited speakers are contributing to the most urgent conversations in the field; even a guide on how to “dress to express.”
Tactic #4: Instead of pushing information at your participants, empower them to direct their own learning.
We organize our events with very clear objectives that we need to achieve, and we still don’t have as much traction as we’d like, especially from the “introvert” demographic.
DockerCon does an exceptional job at facilitating its participants to direct their own learning. In collaboration with e180, DockerCon activates Hallway Tracks as a knowledge exchange platform adapted to accommodate larger discussions with up to 15 people, DockerCon both empowers its community leaders to become facilitators, and helps other participants to get out of their comfort zones and connect in new ways. Participants both introverted and extroverted found peers with the information they were seeking— deepening their learning and cultivating new relationships with their communities.
One DockerCon participant described his experience at the event as: “The magic revolved around setting the exceptions for the discussion, valuing everyone’s inputs and creating a safe space. The most challenging aspect was taking notes fast enough, given the rich discussion and wonderful ideas presented.”
Tactic #5: Try the joy-centered design approach.
Each year we add more and more activities and opportunities to network. No matter what I do, participants still stay in their corner, looking at their phone. I don’t know what to add to the schedule anymore to get them involved.
Having varied programming is an asset. For an introvert (or really most attendees) the pressure to continuously engage and socialize can be draining. What if you created an environment that energized them instead?
When it comes to event planning, author and researcher Ingrid Fetell Lee encourages organizers to put joy in the mix. In her book, Joyful, she demonstrates that joy is “deeply connected to energy.” Research proves that joy can be energizing; it increases productivity and makes people more sociable and willing to engage. In an interview with Convene, she gives advice on how to design for joy, including tips like adding pops of color, natural elements, and elements of surprise to the event space.
SaaStr Annual is an event that excels at joy. Popular features include SaaStr Square Park, a stunning space that is designed so that participants can decompress, have a drink, and even play with puppies. Fun additions to the schedule like “Mythical Creature Day” add an element of childlike wonder. Elements like these inspire joy. They keep participants happy, energized, and excited to engage with the content.
The place of care, empathy, and joy in event planning
The best post-event braindate story we’ve heard began simply with, This has been an affirmation of my own gifts. For us, this served as a reminder of the higher purpose that events serve to their participants as the guardians of not just their experiences, but also their emotions and sense of empowerment.
When successful planners consider the emotional experience of their participants, they approach event design with a feeling of care, empathy, and joy. This empowers participants to dictate their own learning and form meaningful connections. In doing so, they create remarkable experiences that their participants (introverted and extroverted) feel grateful for, and return to, year after year.