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Blog: Event design

Designing events for introverts

17 June 2024 minute read

Ian Dickie
Managing Director

Are you an introvert or an extrovert?

Chances are, if you’re an event professional you probably tend towards extroversion. You love meeting lots of new people, bringing them together, persuading them to do things …

But what about the attendees at your events?

According to Myers Briggs (the psychometric testing people) 57% of the population tend towards introversion.

One assumes that number would be lower if you just tested people working in recruitment. It could well be higher if the sample was composed instead solely of software developers.

Regardless of which community your event serves though, a fair percentage of your attendees will be introverts – and this can have a major impact on how much value they’re able to derive from it.

What do we mean by ‘introverted’?

Very generally speaking, an introvert is someone who, for the most part, feels more comfortable focusing on their inner thoughts and ideas, rather than on what’s happening externally. Introverts tend to enjoy spending time with just one or two people, rather than large groups or crowds.

Which, let’s face it, has the potential to make attending a conference a bit of a nightmare.

When we hear the word introvert, it can be tempting to think of someone who’s shy or quiet and prefers to be alone. While that may be true for some introverts, there’s much more to it than that. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert depends largely on how you process the world around you.

People who are merely shy might like to be a part of larger groups, strike up conversations and ask questions in front of hundreds of experts, but something – usually fear, anxiety, or insecurity – stops them from doing it.

Introverts, on the other hand, will always prefer to be by themselves. The difference here is choice. Shy people want to interact but they’re unable to. Introverts would often prefer not to.

The theory of introvert vs extrovert personality types was dreamt up (pun intended) by
Swiss psychiatrist and Freud collaborator Carl Jung, in the 1920s. In essence, the two personality types sort people into how they acquire or expend their energy. Introverts, Jung contended, turn to their own minds to recharge, while extroverts seek out other people to fuel their energy needs.

So to state the blindingly obvious, most business events – with their paramount objective of encouraging networking, spontaneous interactions and relationship-building at scale in a concentrated time-period, is a kind of a dream-come-true for the extroverts among us.

But for the introverted, that same event can quickly feel exhausting and overwhelming.

Image of two heads, with a fully charged battery in the left-hand head and a depleted battery in the right-hand head

What to do?

If you want to make your conference more comfortable for introverts, there are fundamentally two directions you can go in.

Either you can design your event such that the need to interact with hordes of other people is greatly reduced; or you could focus instead on making those interactions easier and less intimidating.

At first glance, the first option seems appealing – both to the introverted attendee, and the hard-pressed conference organiser. Just provide some designated quiet spaces, schedule longer breaks and do away with the sit-down banquet. Let introverts be introverts.

But here’s the thing. When I talked to introverted friends and colleagues about this, they all made the same point: that while alone time is important to them at a conference, they don’t actually want it to be too easy to find!

The value in attending a conference comes from human interaction; and while my introvert friends might have to duck some activities to recharge their batteries here and there, they need to work at ducking as little as possible.

Which means that as designers of experiences, we need to get better at making those interactions less intimidating and more manageable for introverted participants.

The good news here is that most practices you incorporate in your event strategy to make introverted people comfortable will also benefit shy people.

The challenges of being an introvert

Introverts don’t struggle with content; they struggle at meetings and events where you are supposed to mingle, network and be actively involved.

As event designers, we want to engage our attendees, but if we overstep their boundaries – take them too far out of their comfort zone – it can have the opposite effect, leading attendees to shut-down, withdraw and have a negative experience.

Fortunately, there are a number of tried-and-tested approaches you can build in to make your event more agreeable for the introverts.

Here are our 10 top tips.

1 Provide information in advance

Introverts like to know exactly what they’re getting into ahead of time.

So pay special attention to the joining instructions for your event.

Let people know beforehand about any group discussions or interactive sessions so they can mentally prepare, figure out what they want to say (or if they want to contribute at all).

Providing access to the participant list prior to the event helps people identify colleagues they know or have reason to connect with. Introverts (not just power-networkers) find this really helpful.

Be sure to include the usual details about location, parking, check-in and other relevant information. But consider offering suggestions for nearby amenities like parks, cafes etc, where guests could go for some time out and to re-charge their social batteries.

Better still, if yours is one of the growing number of events that offers yoga, meditation, or other wellness elements as part of the programme, be sure to describe it in advance so introverted guests know it’s available to them.

2 Lean on your attendee app

Allowing your guests to submit their questions through the event app is key, since introverts will surely have great questions and comments to make, but might not always feel up to standing up in a crowded auditorium and calling for the mic.

Your app is also key to helping ease introverts into networking – since they can identify people they want to connect with and reach out in a structured way, in their own time, on their own terms – rather than figuring out how to cut in on a loud group conversation at a party or coffee break.

Introverts would sooner plan high-value conversations they want to have, than bounce around the room making connections at networking sessions.

Image of a thought bubble and a speech bubble

3 Have a clear layout with good signage

Introverts prefer getting their bearings without having to ask for help, as far as possible. So support them with well-placed signage by check-in areas, communal spaces, restrooms etc.

Clearly signpost the location and timing of speeches, sessions and breaks for refreshments and food. Again, a comprehensive, well-executed event app that includes all the key programme and logistical information can be really reassuring to introverted guests.

4 Re-think networking

It’s not that introverts don’t like socialising, it’s just that they’d prefer to do it at their own pace and in a smaller group.

They’d also rather not do it in a crowded environment, where there is a constant stream of people, noise, and stimuli depleting their energy and leaving them feeling exhausted.

This means putting everyone into one large hall will not work. Neither will popular icebreaker games like speed-networking. Introverts don’t want to talk to a bunch of different people for two minutes each and exchange business cards. They’d prefer the connection that comes with longer conversations with fewer attendees.

Small talk is a nightmare for introverts. Not only do they hate it, but they’re also unsure how to go about it. What can work however is giving people conversation starters with things like quizzes, bingo or games that can provide a semi-structured but fun way to break the ice.

5 Consider activities vs socialising

This depends on the type of event you’re running, but consider whether it’s possible to substitute pure networking time (drinks receptions etc) with more structured activities (tours, demonstrations, make-and-do sessions etc).

Introverted guests will often be more comfortable when there’re something specific to ‘do’ which will, in turn, make it easier to connect with fellow attendees.

Extroverts get bored with the same-old approach to networking too, so this can be a real win / win.

6 Make your badges work harder

Name badges can be a quick win when it comes to making it easier for introverted guests to strike up or join conversations.

For instance, you can invite attendees to select a sticker (or a category on the registration form) based on their interests. These could be related to your event content, or just really general fun stuff like ‘dog lover’, ‘avid reader’, ‘football fan’ etc.

I’ve been to events where you were encouraged to add a fun fact about yourself to your badge. Sounds silly, but it can really help introverted guests start networking. You could even just assign people a piece of random trivia – anything to get conversations started.
If your vibe is more ‘strictly business’ you could have guests complete a registration field along the lines of ‘I am seeking …’ or, ‘talk to me about …’ and add that statement to the badge. This can help an introvert to circumvent that intial, awkward ‘so what do you do …’ part and move directly to a topic they’re comfortable with (which also happens to be the reason they’re at your event in the first place).

I’ve also seen organisers ask attendees to add a symbol to their badge if they are outgoing and a different one to signal a more introverted nature. The theory here is that chatty people can introduce themselves to less talkative colleagues.

Think about what would work for your particular community and don’t be afraid to get creative.

7 Consider catering

Opinions differ here.

Should you have a formal, sit-down lunch / dinner – or a more casual buffet.

On the one hand, buffets offer the introvert greater flexibility. They can get food, sit, eat and then disappear for a few minutes to recharge, or indeed leave without any awkwardness.

On the other, a sit-down dinner with assigned seating provides a clear structure and avoids the tricky business of figuring out where to sit.

If you do opt for a formal, seated dinner – it’s more introvert-friendly to assign seating and then to encourage a break at some point where people can switch tables (and those who need a break can slip away without fuss).

8 Add some quiet zones

You might consider designating some quiet zones where people can just chill out.

Introverts will want to take some time away from the crowd between sessions to process the content and networking, perhaps make some notes and just reflect without constantly feeling they have to be socially ‘on-duty’.

Image of calm woman sitting cross-legged with laptop

9 Be friendly!

Of course you run events. You’re already friendly to everyone.

But you know that when the registration phase kicks in at the start of your meeting, things are generally hectic with staff members often busy and preoccupied.

Yet this is when it’s really important to be ready with a friendly smile and eye contact with guests. It gives attendees confidence that they’re in the right place and that it’s a relaxed and welcoming environment, which is the ideal way to help introverts feel more comfortable from the outset.

Hire event staff who are natural conversationalists inclined to mingle and facilitate introductions among all your guests.

This stuff is important to all attendees, but for introverts a reassuring first impression can be a game-changer.

10 Remember it’s OK to say ‘No’

Last but not least, make sure that all your staff, session chairs and speakers understand that it’s completely OK for people to say ‘no thanks’ to teambuilding, icebreakers, coffee dates, networking sessions, etc, and to the broader concept of ‘joining in the fun!’

We’re back to the distinction between introversion and shyness. Some facilitators think it’s their job to get everyone involved in group activities at all costs – like some 1960’s holiday camp host. Disabuse them of that notion.

Forcing engagement and participation should be avoided at all costs.

At the end of the day, introverts are looking for exactly the same value from your event as their loudest, most extroverted peers. They just need to access it a little differently.

Take a little more care with your planning, understand their needs and then watch your attendee satisfaction scores skyrocket at your next conference.