Stretch Your Wings: Top Ten Tips for Introverts at Conferences

Before I began attending writers’ conferences, I thought of myself as an extrovert.

Dressed for battle in gray wool and white silk, I fearlessly strode into my first conference ready to conquer the romance-writing world. I’d thought of writing as a profession, and by that time, I was awfully good at being professional. I was ready to kick ass and take names on my way to the top.

But instead of businesspeople giving each other firm handshakes and exchanging business cards, I saw women running into each others’ arms and huddling in tight little groups, dishing gossip and reminiscing like long-lost friends.

Which they were, of course. They weren’t competitors. They weren’t colleagues.

They were friends.

Panic tightened my throat as my stomach lurched. I realized my error, for this wasn’t a work conference.

This was high school!

I wanted to turn and run. I’d hated high school. (The reasons are myriad, but suffice to say that I’d rather infiltrate a biker gang than try to worm my way into a female clique.) But I didn’t run. Instead, I developed a coping mechanism in which I act busy all the time and walk as if I have somewhere important to go. I make up little errands for myself–“Get a coffee!” “Use the bathroom!” “Take the escalator to the bottom floor, walk around once, pretend you’ve forgotten something back in your room and then head back up!”–to maintain the illusion. At cocktail parties, I wear intimidating necklaces and stand in a corner looking imperious. I’m terrified, of course, but it’s better to look vaguely bored than desperate.

There must be a better way! Obviously, I hate conferences. And yet, they’re good for my career. I just registered for the Greater Seattle RWA’s annual Emerald City Writers’ Conference, taking place this October 13-15 at the Westin Bellevue.

In the spirit of self-improvement, I’ve researched and found my favorite ways for introverts to feel more sociable at conferences:

  1. Volunteer. You’ll have a job and are forced to talk to people, but not to any one person for very long. You’ll be glad you did it, and it’s far less stressful than mingling at a cocktail party. *Shudders* 
  2. Present a workshop. This seems counter-intuitive, but most introverts are pretty happy to talk to strangers, and many don’t mind delivering a presentation, especially with a friend. It’s just small-talk that’s draining. When you’re a presenter, you have an automatic conversational deep-dive that cuts out a lot of that nonsense. Most people will notice your “Presenter” flag and ask you what you’re presenting. This gets you straight into your comfort zone of talking about what you love.
  3. Make advance plans. If you have friends attending, contact them before the event to schedule a coffee date or to sit together at a certain meal. Make the plans concrete. It’s too hard to find people at a conference, and cell phones get weird in big hotels. Have times and locations set before you even leave.
  4. Make spur-of-the-moment plans. If you see (or make!) a friend, establish a firm plan to reconnect at a specific time, like, “Let’s sit together at lunch! Meet me at the right-hand door at 11:45 and we’ll go in together?”
  5. Wait in line. You see a hundred people waiting for dessert, and you’re not that hungry anyway. But it’s a Thing to Do, and so stand there, keep your eyes up and your mouth friendly. (I revert to a terrifying RBF when over-exerted).
  6. Wear clothes that make you feel confident. Chose your outfits for each day / night in advance and try them on at home. It’s usually more confidence-boosting to be more over-dressed than under-dressed, but if you feel great in your jeans, wear ’em. (I do). Save your brand-building costumes for the autographing night. Wearing a costume makes people feel like they have to talk about your costume instead of getting to know you for real.
  7. Put on your bling. Don’t be shy! Stick all of your chapter pins on your badge. It’ll give other people something to notice when they’ve met you, and it makes it easier to connect with those once-a-year-friends whose faces you forget. (“Oh, you’re in Kiss of Death? Me, too! Did you go the pre-con tour this year?” etc, etc.).  
  8. Be helpful and knowledgeable. Bring an extension cord and/or a power strip. Offer it to others who look desperate for a charge. Bring extra pens; hand them out with impunity. Study the conference schedule to know where stuff is and when it’s happening. Know where bathrooms are. People are grateful when you help them and it helps establish friendships. 
  9. Do not drink alcohol. Alcohol is a tricky bitch. Maybe you can normally toss back three beers and a bourbon without dropping a vowel, but try that at a conference and you’ll end up weeping in the bathroom because you told your dream agent that she looks like a guy you dated in high school. There’s always one sad drunk lady being hauled to her hotel room by her buddies around 10 o’clock every year…don’t let it be you.
  10. Establish a Mental Retreat. Your hotel room, a coffee shop two blocks away, the nearby Target. Whatever–you will need somewhere to go where you don’t have to talk to anyone for a while. If you aren’t staying in a room by yourself, research in advance where you can retreat when you need to be alone. A nearby park? A quiet museum? A bookstore? Wherever it is, do not run there at every break! I listed this last for a reason. Stretch your social muscles before curling up into a ball, okay?

Remember, you aren’t at the conference just to learn. You’re there to make personal connections, too.

Are you a conference introvert or extrovert? No matter your nature, how do you cope with the all-day nature of a romance conference? What are your top tips for managing conference overload?


37 responses to “Stretch Your Wings: Top Ten Tips for Introverts at Conferences”

  1. Seana Kelly says:

    Great advice. Thank you! I’m a complete introvert. My first RWA was just like yours. I knew no one, felt conspicuously uncomfortable, and arrived at sessions 30 min early to read in empty meeting rooms. In 2015, I was a GH finalist, so I went into the conference with some new online friends (the other finalists) who took pity on pathetic butt, inviting to lunches and dinners. Hell, just having someone smile or wave in the halls makes a huge difference. In 2016, I finaled again and had more people to connect with. It took some of the terror away. This year I’ll have just published my first book and I’ll be one of those people who so intimidated me my first year, one of those women hugging old friends in the halls. 🙂

    • Aw, that’s a sweet story!!!

      And oh, how I can relate! I love the busy workshop days, when everyone is running to and fro, and YES, you can arrive early and grab a good seat and maybe peek at a new book or study the schedule. Mini-down time.

      It does get better — and it helps to have those credentials under your belt.

      But it’s still hard, especially when a lot of your friends are online-only. I meet them at conferences, but I always assume they have better in-person friends who are in attendance that they’d rather be with. So I hug and squeal and reminisce, but when push comes to shove, I’m usually afraid to stick around with them and assume that we’re *real* friends. Sometimes I even ask a particularly bold online friend if they mind if I hang out with them (I did that to Kim Law at last RWA).

      It’s basically high school over again. I really hate it. I’ve found that making firm plans is the key to happiness. If I know who I’m eating lunch and dinner with every day, and maybe a coffee date, I can relax.

  2. Darynda Jones says:

    Infiltrate a biker gang! I’m dying!

    Yeah, high school was tricky. Oy. You have some incredible tips, Jamie. I straddle this weird fence between introvert and extrovert. I love conferences, seeing old friends and meeting new readers, but they wipe me out.

    My first RWA was NOT a good experience, but after that initial event, I learned it’s much more fun to actually talk to other people whether you know them or not and now RWA is still my favorite conference. As is pretty much any RWA chapter conference.

    Speaking of which, I’ll be at Emerald City too! Can’t wait to see you. It’s been years!

    • Darynda Jones says:

      Oops! Forgot to answer your question. Conference overload: I must, must, must have down time. A span of time every day where I’m alone in my room and can just chill.

      RT is the craziest (and loudest) con I go to, and I need lots of downtime at that one. So much so that this year, we stayed an extra day so that I could have a meeting with my amazing assistants (one of whom is from Puerto Rico). We met in my room on the last day before we were to fly out (after taking a tour that morning), and I stretched out on one of the beds while we chatted and, yep, I fell asleep. FOR THREE HOURS!

      When I woke up, my asst from PR had to leave to catch her flight. I am the best boss EVER. Le sigh…

      But that’s pretty much what they do to me. I collapse into a coma after all the excitement is over.

      • Elizabeth Langston says:

        Your PA *is* amazing!

      • Yes, you’ll be there! I’m nervous about seeing you!

        LOL, I’m pathetic.

        I haven’t yet attended one, but RT seems *crazy*. But I think all conferences can turn an extrovert into an introvert. Very few people can go-go-go all day and be “energized” by the experience. I think most of us leave a con feeling inspired or motivated, but also exhausted.

        Planning for a down-day for sleeping (or meetings, I guess!) is an excellent idea, especially if you have a demanding home life that will suck you dry the second you slip into the door.

        With RWA in Orlando this year, I’d want to take an extra week to really “do” Disney World. That’s part of why I’m not going — I’d hate not being able to go to the theme parks, but it’s difficult enough to get a week off from my real life to attend the con!

        • Darynda Jones says:

          NERVOUS? What??? Well, okay, I can understand that. I’m a hugger. You can tell me to stop when it gets uncomfortable.

          And good for you on the extra week in Orlando! Last time we took an extra day. A day is not enough. Not by a long shot. You will have a blast!

          • I hug friends and family whom I haven’t seen in along time!! Gladly. You can’t stop me!

            I *do* dislike hugging someone I see all the time. Like, shit. I saw you last month. I like you just fine, but I don’t touch my own husband this often.

            I’ve gotten my brother-in-law to stop hugging. We see each other at least once a week, and no hugs are exchanged! It’s pretty great. I need to work on everyone else. I’m really good at finding something awkward to hold just as a party’s breaking up. Nobody can hug you when you’re holding a messy casserole dish! (They try, though. They do try).

  3. Elizabeth Langston says:

    I’ll endorse the WAIT IN LINE and MENTAL RETREAT. I met someone standing in line for breakfast at my first RWA conference. THe diner had run out of tables when they got to her, and she invited me to sit with her. And we built a really great friendship from that.

    I need a mental retreat desperately. One year (maybe Washington, so that was 2009?) I stayed at a B&B and walked to the hotel. I loved the B&B, but the distance was too far to be a retreat. I try to stay in the conference hotel now (or find someone else who is there) so that I can disappear into a room when I need breathing space.

    • Were we at the same B&B in 2009? Maybe Woodley Park B&B? That was DC, I think. I stayed at a B&B right across from the Marriott Wardman Park and there were a bunch of other authors there. I made a good friend this way, in fact — Irene Hannon, who is just the sweetest and most thoughtful person ever. She’s the one who gave me the idea of contacting long-distance friends in advance to set up coffee dates. It really makes you feel special and loved when someone does this, and it’s especially nice when you’re below them on the career ladder.

      The B&B was a nice retreat, but it was too far from the hotel. Even though it was just across the street, it was too far to make a quick escape between sessions or before a meal. That’s why whenever I attend a con, I’m always sure to register early so that I can get into the conference hotel. The overflow for RWA Orlando is a long hoof!

      • Elizabeth Langston says:

        Mine was called the American House B&B. The one you stayed in was already booked, I think. Mine was a good mile away, and I had to cross this huge bridge. (Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?) I took a taxi at night.

        • Oh! Yeah, the one I was at was literally across the street. I thought it’d be close enough–it couldn’t have been closer–but in retrospect, staying at the hotel would’ve been easier (but more expensive!).

    • Darynda Jones says:

      I was at a B&B that year, too! Mine wasn’t far, only about a block, so I could easily walk there and veg. It was great!

  4. I love the honesty of this post, Jamie, and I’m sure your words are going to resonate and genuinely help many! I’m an introvert who easily slips on an extrovert hat when needed. My top tip for managing conference overload: Stay at the conference hotel. This way you have a place close at hand where you can lighten your loads, physically and metaphorically. 🙂

    • Absolutely!! Very good tip. Elizabeth and I were just chatting (above) about this very thing. We both stayed at a B&B in ’09 but it was just too far from the hotel.

      So register early, because pretty much any overflow hotel will be too far, no matter where you are!

      For DC, which was my first RWA, I lived nearby in Annapolis. I was going to be staying in two different hotels, so I actually went to the city a couple of weeks before the conference to scout everything out and get comfortable with the lay of the land (and the Metro stops). I posted a photo-heavy “guide to RWA in DC” on my website and as a result, became sort of a temporary DC travel expert on the various writing loops. I loved it. 🙂

  5. jbrayweber says:

    Excellent advice. I admit to doing all those things, at RWA and especially at RT when I was winging that convention solo which was especially terrifying. And I’m an extrovert!

    It’s funny because I walk around a conference like I would walking into a bad part of town head up, shoulders back (only without the RBF that screams I dare you to come within 3 feet of me). It’s all about confidence. With each conference, it will get better because you’re building relationships.

    I think most of us feel the intense jitters of a conference. So these tips are great to share.


    • Yup — that’s the imperiousness, right? I do that, too. It really helps! But it’s not precisely natural. I mean, if you see me striding through a room like a Viking warrior, that isn’t a sign that I’m feeling my most comfortable. It’s a sign that I’m feeling vulnerable, and that I’m trying to project confidence. Anything but fear!

      I do feel much better now that I have more connections, and that I’m represented and published. Those credentials make me feel like I belong there, and that I have something to offer.

      It’s just so damned complicated. I’m sitting here thinking about how I always want a “conference buddy,” but then I realize that I hate tagging along with one person all the time because then I never get to see my other friends! But by flitting around, I never really establish myself as a central member of any one tribe.


      I dealt with this in school, too. In elementary school, I remember having a handful of reliable BFFs at each school I attended. But we moved so much! By sixth grade, I’d been to five different schools and moved across the country twice. For some reason, it was really hard to break into established friendship groups in middle school and high school. It was like people already had their BFFs from elementary school and didn’t have room for one more.

      And then we moved again mid-high school and I had to start over, anyway. It was all pretty exhausting. At least my new high school was so tiny that they were glad for a new face, and it wasn’t long before everyone felt more or less like family. Thank God for Boonville!

  6. Vivi Andrews says:

    Dude. I love this post. Gold. Solid gold. My first conference was by far the most intimidating, but over the years you make more and more friends and it begins to be less daunting. I do highly recommend volunteering. I love having a job, a purpose that I can focus on and it relaxes me enough that I meet people more easily.

    Great advice, Jamie.

    • Last time I saw you was in New York, and you seemed super confident! You had a buddy and it seemed like you were just uber-comfortable in your own skin.

      I envied you!

      Are you going to Orlando?

  7. Tamara Hogan says:

    LOVE this post, Jamie.

    I haven’t been to a conference for a couple of years now, but as both a massive introvert and a person with sensory issues around sound, one life-saving (sanity-saving?) MUST for me is springing for a solo hotel room. In large groups, I reach sensory overload very quickly, and need to decompress, remove myself from the noise, multiple times per day. For me, the solo room is worth every penny.

    Do what you need to do to take care of yourself!

    • I was thinking of you as I was writing this. 🙂 I remember once finding you sitting quietly in a chair in a little nook at a conference hotel, and I think I asked you if you were up for a chat or preferred to be alone. I think you were up for a chat, but it would’ve been perfectly understandable if you weren’t!

      One thing I appreciate about you is that you’re open about your need for decompression. So when I’m around you, I know you’re there on purpose. I know that if you needed to leave, you would. I don’t have to worry about how you’re feeling because you take care of yourself. That’s a rare thing, you know?

      It’s still really hard to say “no” to a friend when they ask if you’d like a chat, which is why having a private hotel room is really useful if you need a space to truly be alone!

  8. Darynda Jones says:

    I have to say, all this conference talk is making me want to go to RWA so bad! I miss it like the dickens. I might try to fit it into my schedule after all.

    • I always *want* to go, but the last time I went to RWA, I vowed not to return unless I was up for a Rita. It wasn’t fun anymore.

      I’m normally a very confident person and I’m comfortable in my own skin, but RWA cons dredge up all kinds of old fears and anxieties. It brings me right back to high school…or even worse, middle school!

  9. Cynthia Huscroft says:

    From on introvert to another…good advice! I’ll look at this again when (positive affirmation here) I attend a writer’s conference:)


    • I hope it helps! BTW, be sure to look for local conferences and one-day workshops. They’re always cheaper and less stressful than the big national con.

  10. Man, that first chapter meeting or con is tough.

    Maybe I’ve been lucky but I’ve found writers to be way more welcoming to wide-eyed newbs than other groups I’m involved with.

    I snorted coffee reading the bit about making Target your down-time. During our writers’ retreat, it seems like everyone has to make one extended WalMart run alone during the week.

  11. Rita Henuber says:

    Yes,yes, yes to everything. Thanks Jamie this is an excellent post for those going to conferences.

  12. I’m an introvert and loved all these tips. Wow, Jamie, the one about bringing the extension cord/outlet..that is so brilliant! And now I feel like going to the conference.

    • I’ve seen people pull out extension cords at coffee shops and it seems like a great way to meet people…especially if you’re single and otherwise couldn’t find a reason to speak to the cutie one table over. 😉

      I, too, feel like going to the conference, if only because I want to see all of you!

  13. Elisa Beatty says:

    This is brilliant and hilarious, Jamie!!

    I sooo identify with the “I’ll act imperious so no one knows I’m terrified’ act…and all your advice is great for finding friendlier ways out of the terror!

  14. Jennifer Henderson says:

    Jamie, Great post! I’m an RWA nationals newbie, and I will keep all your tips in mind. I’m a strange brew of nervous and excited. And… I’ll be at ECWC, so perhaps we can become line friends. 🙂


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