As a self-described introvert, I’ve looked forward to conferences with great anticipation and a little bit of dread. Ranging from packed all-day affairs to week-long marathons, nonprofit conferences are a great way to learn and share dialogue with a group of people from diverse backgrounds and strengths who are passionate about the sector and their communities.
From my time as an AmeriCorps VISTA (yay PSO!) beginning my nonprofit career to positions with more leadership potential, I have attended a wide variety of conferences. When I register, I’m super excited to look at sessions, speakers, and hear which of my colleagues will be attending. But just a few days out, I inevitably think, “Gosh, I know there’s going to be so much to learn and so many people to talk to, but how am I ever going to be ‘on’ for this long?”
At the beginning of my career, I decided to attend conferences with a “play it by ear” attitude, and often left them at the end of the day with introverts’ guilt of feeling left out or that I wasted some really good opportunities to learn and make connections with new colleagues, mentors, potential future employers, and all around super cool people.
Now, whether I’m going to a half-day workshop or an intense multi-day conference, I make a game plan before I ever get close to picking up my lanyard and swag bag that has helped me find a balance between seizing the day and leaving overwhelmed.
1. Pick and choose which sessions you’ll attend and when you’ll recharge
Read over the entire schedule beforehand and plan what works best for you. Multi-day conferences often have program and networking options from pre-breakfast groups to hundreds of awesome sessions during the day to happy hours and informal conversations that stretch long into the night.
Know yourself. Pick the networking sessions that work best for your style and schedule, and don’t be afraid to recharge your batteries by skipping others. Take half a lunch break to talk with people, and find a quiet corner for the other half. Don’t feel guilty about skipping a programming session either, as long as it’s not the best one there!
Most of all, stick to your plan. Go to the sessions you scheduled fully engaged and without fail, and don’t feel guilty about being absent for the others.
2. Don’t leave introductions to chance, because they probably won’t happen
All conferences have a list of presenters and exhibitors sent out way in advance. Many conferences even send a list of attendees beforehand or provide one at the door. Map out the people you’d most like to talk to for your professional and personal networks, and for questions and conversations about your work. Keep your eyes laser-focused on nametags and introduce yourself with conversation starters you’ve already prepared. No need for much small talk; know the reason you want to connect with them and get straight to the point.
3. Throw away those business cards… but only after you’ve turned them into digital connections
You’ve done the hard part, so don’t lose your momentum! Within three days, send emails and LinkedIn invitations to make those new connections internet official. And don’t be afraid to ask for follow-up meetings with the people who would be most beneficial with your professional development.
By setting expectations for yourself, goals for your day, and striking a balance for “off-times,” I now feel like those awkward moments of striking up small talk are worth it and feel a sense of accomplishment after meeting my conference networking “scavenger hunt” goals.
Don’t be shy to use your YNPN-TC membership to make conference connections even easier! As my fellow board member Amanda Bingham shared earlier this year, your YNPN connections in the Twin Cities and across the country can be an easy way to win a few new conference buddies.
In addition to helping with these connections, YNPN-TC also offers scholarships to a number of MCN gatherings throughout the year using a cohort model. You can receive a hefty discount to attend the conference and be part of a cohort of your fellow YNPN-TC members at the conference and beyond.
Finally, I’d like to invite my fellow introverts to Scattershot Café on the morning of Saturday, August 13! Scattershot Café is one of YNPN-TC’s most popular events, as we spread out to coffee shops across the Twin Cities for a series of small group discussions on around a dozen topics. It was the first YNPN-TC event I attended after moving to Minnesota last summer, and I made a number of connections that have aided my personal and professional development ever since. Look for email invitations in the next few weeks, and we hope to see you there!