Conference Survival Guide for Introverts - Part 1 of 2

General / 06 September 2018

With so many great (art) conferences happening all around the world, it’s about time for that long-planned guide on “Networking for Introverts”! This article is intended for everyone attending professional conferences, particularly in the entertainment industry (from small, local meetups to bigger ones like GDC), although it might come in handy for other industries as well. There are plenty of networking guides out there already, so for this one, we particularly want to help out fellow introverts, and shy or socially anxious people who want to push themselves out more.

1. Introduction

This guide is a collaboration of two concept artists: Yen Shu Liao and Johanna Rupprecht. We both identify as introverts with social anxiety, and despite being scared before each and every conference, so far we have attended quite a few: GDC in San Francisco, THU in Portugal, IFCC in Croatia, Schoolism Workshops, Guild of Natural Science Illustrators Conference, Spectrum Fantastic Art Live, IAMAG in Paris, PAX East, FMX Stuttgart, THU Meetups, and local artist sketch groups - some of them we went to together, others on our own. Each time we are really scared beforehand, intimidated by the prospect of meeting so many (new) people, but also aware of the great opportunities - meeting like-minded people is such a good reality check (particularly for freelancers), there is so much inspiration to be found and so many great learning opportunities to be had - both as an artist, and as a human being. And then, of course, the networking part - making friends and contacts that might help further one’s career, meeting face-to-face with recruiters, saying hi to a personal hero, or making friends eager to help each other out in this crazy and competitive industry.

While all these great things are true, and make it very worthwhile to go to conferences - we used to feel really alone with our anxieties. Everyone tends to highlight the positive aspects, writing on social media about the excitement and fun of it all. What doesn’t make it to social media are the conference-themed nightmares, the “hiding behind bushes eating a banana alone for lunch break because I didn’t dare join anyone” situations, the crying in hotel rooms from pushing way past personal limits, hoping to get injured to trade conference-going for hospitalization, the feeling of defeat when everyone else seems to be socializing 24/7 without needing a break. By now, we know we are definitely not alone with those issues. So for those of you who can relate, we are writing this guide - and for those of you who still have to make their first conference experiences and may be intimidated (or terrified) by it. We want to let you know - it is tough without doubt, but it is also worth it, and most importantly - it really does get easier over time, with practice and preparation.

Obligatory disclaimer: We are no health professionals, and actual (social) anxiety is something that can and should be treated by a professional. Everything in this article is based on our own experiences and what helps us deal with certain situations, but it can’t replace professional treatment for anxiety disorders.

With all that said, here is everything we found helpful while attending conferences: We will start with some mindset changes, and then go over to some actual “hands on” preparations.

2. You are not alone

We already touched on this in the introduction, but it’s such an important point that it deserves its own bullet point. To our limited perspective, it often looks like everyone else is completely at ease, having a good time, and happily doing their thing. This is, however, not always true: Even the most confident and successful looking people might be struggling with impostor syndrome (feeling like a fraud), might be nervous approaching others, or just generally being anxious in certain settings. Not everyone displays “symptoms” and likewise, just because you are feeling anxious, doesn’t mean you look that way to others. Even if you do show symptoms - most people know the feeling and won’t judge you for it!

So how does knowing this help? First, it can take off some of that pressure of “everyone looks at me and judges me for my fear”, and secondly, it shows that the fear doesn’t need to keep us from doing what we want to do (i.e. talk to someone). Just knowing that feeling scared in itself doesn’t need to keep you from doing something, and seeing other people doing great despite it, reminds us that anxieties can be overcome. For that reason, Johanna keeps a folder full of screenshots containing reminders that other (successful) people struggle with impostor syndrome, low self-confidence and anxiety as well.

Knowing that you are not alone can also help you to see yourself in other people, and reach out to them easier.

During conferences and other social situations, remind yourself that you are not alone with these issues, and that’s okay.

3. Face your fears

Now that we established that it’s okay to be scared, it’s time to face your fears, so we can do what we set out to do regardless! Fear itself is a very basic human emotion and meant to protect us - but it can get in our way if it gets triggered in the wrong situations.

It can help to frequently remind ourselves that we are *not* going to die, even if our body is doing its best to make us believe just that. This is something that gets better over time too - the more times we do something scary (going to conferences, walking up and talking to someone, asking a question to a speaker, asking for portfolio reviews, giving a talk etc.), the more evidence our brains have that those things are, indeed, not deadly. For the first times going to social events, there is no real data, just the general idea that conferences aren’t supposed to be deadly - but by now, when the fear kicks in, we can tell ourselves “we went before and came out fine the other end, despite everything”. Other good questions to ask are “What is the worst that could happen? Will it kill me? No? Then I can figure it out later.”

This is true even on a small scale, like walking up to someone to say “hi”. Even if some things go wrong, we embarrass ourselves or get rejected in some way - it is still usually not as horrible (or deadly) as it feels at first.

Lauren Panepinto wrote about a great exercise for this on Muddycolors - walk yourself through the worst, the best, and the “most likely” scenario for a given scary situation. In most social situations, you will realize that even the worst situation usually is not as horrible as it might feel.

During conferences, remind yourself that you are not actually in a life threatening situation, even if your body makes you feel that way. You will be fine!

4. Don’t dwell on your fear

This is closely related to “Facing your fears” and again, it’s about shifting our perception. We used to try fighting the stress response of our bodies, basically “feeling bad about feeling bad”. Instead, try reframing what’s happening: Your body isn’t trying to hinder you, but it is trying to prepare you for the challenges ahead in its own way - ready to face whatever is coming at you. While icy hands, a heart beating way too fast or other symptoms may not be comfortable, it can still help to accept them as our body trying to help us - finding ways to deal with these symptoms instead of trying too hard to fight them. There is a good TED talk to watch about this topic (See resource section below).

During conferences, accept your discomfort and find ways to deal with it, until the symptoms get better.

5. Let go of “being perfect”

This is Johanna’s particular challenge. I tend to feel like I always need to be perfect in order to be liked - no showing weakness, no making mistakes, no embarrassing myself, and definitely no showing any signs of being nervous or not-in-control of a situation. I could probably break an arm and insist that I’m absolutely okay to anyone looking just to not admit I just did something bad! At the same time, I love other people being faulty, real people - stumbling, awkward, honest, making mistakes. I find it endearing and likeable!

While I’m not sure why I am so harsh on myself in that regard, I do realize how harmful it is - nobody can be perfect in all regards, and learning anything new (like how to socialize) is paved with making mistakes. Learning to accept that it’s okay to sometimes say something stupid, to walk into a glass door in front of others, to forget someone’s name, or to appear confused can take a huge amount of pressure off the whole experience. Just like in art, where I had to learn that sometimes “done” is better than “perfect”, I regularly need to remind myself that other people won’t hate me for showing a little imperfection - quite the contrary.

During conferences, remind yourself that you don’t need to be perfect in order to be likeable. Be kind and forgiving to yourself when making mistakes.

6. Focus on helping others out

Many fellow attendees – speakers included – are likely just as nervous and anxious - or just drained - as we are. Instead of focusing on how you are feeling, focus on how others are likely feeling similarly nervous and out of their elements. Try to help them out - do what you wish others would do for yourself. By focusing on doing another person good, you’re less enslaved to your own nervousness and anxiety, and keeping in mind that you’re actually helping others by saying hi first might be that little nudge it takes to strike up a conversation with someone.

While being in a conversation, focus on the other person’s wellbeing - if you were in their shoes, how would you like to be treated, how would you like the conversation to be like? Watch their behaviour, see if they’re comfortable speaking with you. Shifting the perspective like this distracts you from your own issues, and at the same time makes sure that you’re being a good conversation partner by being mindful of the other person, making them feel appreciated and heard.

Another (somewhat advanced) way of helping others out is making an effort to include people in a group setting. If you’re in conversation with a group and spot a lone person, make eye contact or an inviting gesture towards them, giving them a chance to join. If you’re in a group that you’re comfortable with, you can even try making space for others to join. These are rather advanced techniques, but if you can muster the courage to apply them, they can help make you feel better about yourself, pushing away some of the negative feelings of the situation. As a side effect - more people in a group means less pressure on each individual to hold up the conversation!

7. Coping Mechanisms

Now that we’re done with the mental reframing and shifting perspectives, let’s get to some hands-on things to try:

- Roleplaying: When Yen pushed themselves to do customer service at a café, and when attending conferences, it’s so out of their comfort zone, that, in order to cope, they would start acting as if they’re someone else – an extroverted friend they knew, a talk show host, and even ancient childhood memories of their estranged businessman father. Yen would pretend to be those people, and how they did well in social situation.

This technique of emulating someone with the skills you need in a given situation can help you overcome your own struggles, and maybe offer some different ways of approaching things with the question “What would [xyz] do in this situation?”.

- Bring comfort: Dried food/snack of choice if you know you’ll be too sick to eat breakfast but will need something later on, something to deal with upset stomach or nausea (ginger candy?) or maybe a favourite token that will remind you of your goals and may help calm you down in emergency situations. Bring something that brings you comfort or reminds you of home – your favorite tea, microwave rice, olives, your home slippers, face masks, etc.

- Set mini-goals: Giving yourself a mini goal can give you focus and determination, and a temporary boost of confidence. For example “Walk up to one stranger tonight and say hi” is a very specific incentive you can focus on, and achieve. Once you did it, congratulate yourself - you’ve done it! Everything else you do that evening will be “bonus” and have less pressure attached. Make sure to set achievable goals here - the point is not really the goal itself, but the confidence boost you get from achieving it and taking away pressure.

- Treat yourself! If there is anything that you know makes you happy or relaxed, now is the time to indulge a little - coffee, chocolate, good food, anything that can make the experience just a little more positive is worth the expense (if you can afford it).

- Alcohol: This one is a double edged sword. It can help to loosen up and brave yourself for striking up conversation with strangers. But it can also increase the risk of involuntarily doing something regrettably weird (like banging the head against the back wall while in a group chat, trying to wake up… or worse). Use your own judgement and experience in this regard!

- Journaling: If you are the journaling type, bring a journal and write it all out on paper – not typing on a screen, mind you. The slow act of physically writing on paper can be meditative, and the notes can even come in useful later when looking back on the experience and analyzing how it went.

- Read: Another paper related technique to take yourself out of all this anxiety is reading fiction. Like Emily Dickinson put it so perfectly, “there is no frigate like a book to take us lands away” – far, far away from the conference and everything, even if just for half an hour. Sci-fi/fantasy works well for Yen, especially since the story tends to have a hero being heroic and overcoming a trial. Find what works for you!

8. Be prepared

Preparation is paramount! This is something most anxious people are doing anyway - research, research, research. For a typical conference, this could look something like this:

- Have a goal: Why are you going to this conference, what are you trying to achieve? Think about this before you go, and when things are getting hard during (or before) the conference, cling to those goals and use them to reorient yourself when anxiety is pulling you off-course.

- Bring painkiller. Nobody can have a good time while having a headache too.

- Find out who is going (speakers, attendees, recruiters): Good places to look are Facebook, forums, people’s social media outlets, industry forums or discord groups, or just making a Social Media post asking who of your connections will be going (if you are connected with some industry people already). In case of speakers and recruiters, think about who you might want to speak with and if applicable, do some research on their work or companies.

- Join any social media groups relating to your event of choice (i.e. Facebook) and find out if there are any chat groups (i.e. Whatsapp, Facebook messenger or Discord). This helps staying on top of things regarding anything related to the event and also can give you a good idea of who’s going to be there.  

- Consider planning your trip to start a day earlier. Find out if people meet up a day or two before the conference - this sometimes happens as people want to go do some sightseeing together, casually meet up or go to museums (for drawing, in artist focused circles). Those early meetups aren’t mandatory at all, but can be a good opportunity if you want to do some warming up in a casual setting in a smaller group. Alternatively, some people choose to stay a day or two longer after the conference, for that same purpose. Even if meeting up before the conference starts is too intimidating, being there a bit early also allows you to get over jet lag if applicable, and to familiarize yourself with the territory beforehand. The extra cost is worth it for not being jet lagged when conference begins.

Being well prepared has two big advantages: Not only does it increase the likelihood for things to go smoothly later on, but it also is ammunition against anxiety once the actual conference is coming closer. We like telling ourselves to “just execute what you prepared for”, because we know we prepared all the steps from leaving our door to the actual conference, and the rest is just following that plan. Of course, sometimes things don’t go according to plan and we need to improvise - but that’s okay, because once thrown into a situation, things tend to work out somehow anyway. But for getting one’s nerves under control, good preparation is vital.

Important notice: This is what works for us - other people might prefer less preparation and more improvisation. That’s completely fine too - in the end, it’s all about finding what works for you specifically.

Onward to Part 2! >>>