Meetings are made for extroverts. They’ll talk to anyone about anything. They’re gregarious, and they get their energy from interacting with other people. But extroverts only make up about half your attendees, says Sharon Fisher, president of experiential communications company Play with a Purpose. The other half, she says, are the introverts whose personal style is almost the opposite, and those attendees need to be considered in your meeting design.
Introverts prefer to think things through before engaging, and take time to open up with people. They’re best in the morning, and unlike extroverts who draw energy from engagement, introverts get more exhausted the more people they talk to. To recharge, they need time by themselves. Also, be aware that shyness, often thought to be an introvert trait, is actually independent of introversion or extroversion. Shyness is related to social anxiety and a fear of being judged.
During sessions at IMEX America over the past few years, Fisher has shared meeting ideas that can help introverts comfortably engage with your meeting, and she offers one impressive statistic that could motivate you to try them: Research has shown that if a conference attendee can make 10 good connections in the first three hours, that person is 92 percent more likely to return to the conference.
Plan a first-timers’ welcome reception. It doesn’t need to be elaborate, but the event should have some kind of activity that makes newcomers comfortable enough to meet some people there, and to learn about the other social events ahead. “Every group is cliquey, even when we say it’s not,” says Fisher, noting that a first-timers’ reception is especially helpful for introverts who appreciate knowing a few faces when they walk into the opening night cocktail party. “By cocktail hour, introverts are tired,” she says. “It’s hard work to make small talk. The easier we can make that for them, the better.”
Try breakfast networking. “When we design meetings, we always put the networking time at the end of the day, but that’s when 50 percent of our audience is winding down,” says Fisher, challenging her audience to think about ways to shake up that we-always-do-it-that-way mindset. “Extroverts will socialize almost anytime; introverts are better earlier in the day when they haven’t been depleted,” she says. One idea is to break participants into small groups and ask them to find five things everyone had in common. Even at general sessions, audience members can ask those sitting in front or behind them an easy, fun question, such as their favorite apps. Just don’t have them ask the people sitting beside them—they most likely already know them, especially if they are introverts.
Design less-imposing receptions. Extroverts have no problem walking into a large, high-voltage cocktail party, but it can be painful for others. Instead of putting your reception in one big room, design places where people can sit and talk, and where the sound volume is lower. Small-group and one-on-one gathering places will make your event memorable, in a good way, for your more introverted attendees.
Get creative with name badges, part 1. “Most name tags are wasted real estate,” says Fisher. Allowing people to personalize them is an easy way for attendees to find common ground—just what an introvert needs to get a conversation started. She recalled one organization that had name tags with two-sided messages at the top. On one side, the message read, “I’m really good at…” and the other side said, “I need help with…” Attendees personalized their messages, allowing them to put out their strengths and needs in a fun, non-threatening way.
Get creative with name badges, part 2. Another badge addition Fisher suggests are humorous stick-on buttons. The planner provides a large variety of options: “I work in my pajamas,” “dog lover,” “die-hard football fan,” “vegan,” “I wish I was sailing,” etc.—and attendees pick the ones they like as they head into a reception. “It’s a very easy way to make a connection,” Fisher says. “If two people with ‘dog-lover’ buttons meet, there’s an instant connection and conversation topic.”
Be a clique buster. When attendees walk into the meeting room, they tend to sit with the people they know. To get new people sitting together, try labeling the tables with topics and have attendees select one they’re interested in. The topics could be work-related or light, like the badge stickers, and will give attendees new people to meet and an instant conversation starter.
Provide signs on each table that specify a fun topic, similar to those on the badge bling and buttons. Participants can sit at whichever table has a topic that appeals to them, and meet others who share that interest. This can help keep your luncheons and dinner banquets from feeling like that cliquey high school cafeteria that still strikes fear into the heart of introverts, whatever their age.
Have them “walk the walls.” Use your walls as conversation starters by posting topics or other food for thought directly on them, and have people “walk the walls.” One popular and often funny and moving in equal parts idea is the “Before I die…” project. Originally created by artist Candy Change on an abandoned house in New Orleans and now featured on more than 2,000 walls across the world, the idea is to provide a slate where people can share their personal reflections. If “Before I die…” is a bit deep for your purposes, you can always make it “Before I leave this meeting…”
Add some quiet spaces. “Introverts may love to drink, but they hate cocktail parties,” Fisher says. Provide some quiet spaces away from the loud music where small groups can sit and chat. “It’s easier for introverts to join a small group than it is to walk through a sea of people introducing themselves.”
Q&A sessions. Introverts hate being put on the spot. They want time to think before they have to do something, Fisher explains. To create productive Q&A sessions that work for both introverts and extroverts, try this: Hand out a card to each attendee at the start of the session and give them time to write down three questions they want the session to address. As the session goes on, attendees should cross out questions as they get answered. When the presentation is over, any questions not crossed out are questions for the Q&A.
Build in private time. Planners want to pack meeting days, really, really full. That works for extroverts but is tough on introverts, who refresh with private time. Finding a balance to satisfying everyone is difficult, but if you can build some private time into your meeting, you’ll have much more productive introverts throughout the day, says Fisher. Consider offering a chair yoga session during the general session, creating a labyrinth for attendees to walk, or having some other quiet-time opportunities during the day.