The way you design events needs a rethink if you want to engage introverts and people who are naturally shy, says Sandra Collins, Director of Strategic Communications at The Collective by BCD Meetings & Events.
Rethinking event design for introverts
Why do we need to consider introverts when designing events?
Not everyone is comfortable in environments where they are expected to network, make small talk and mingle with groups of people who are unknown to them.
Conferences, large meetings and events are absolutely suited to natural extroverts who will be out there making connections, shaking hands and swapping business cards. For life’s introverts, events can be draining and even raise their anxiety levels. You also have to consider that those with hidden disabilities such as ASD or ADHD will find the noise, stimulation and crowds uncomfortable and again, hard to cope with in some cases.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that for introverts, the pandemic gave them the perfect opportunity to limit their interactions. The move to virtual allowed them to participate from a safe, relaxed environment without having to engage in the same way as at face to face meetings. Therefore when designing the event experience it is good to take an inclusive approach and make sure attendance and participation is accessible to everyone.
What are the differences between introverts and extroverts in what they expect from events?
Introverts are not necessarily shy or anti-social – in most cases, it is literally because their brains are wired differently. Extroverts get a buzz from meeting new people & social activities while introverts tend to get a sense of contentment from activities that are more solitary.
Just as with people who are neurodiverse rather than neurotypical—this isn’t a choice, it is in their make up. But the good news is there are ways to accommodate them through good event planning, design and the use of technology to aid interaction.
That means considering how space is used, how networking can be managed and offering options for online question submission and bookable one to one meetings. You might also consider quiet zones where people can just chill out. Introverts will want to enjoy the experience, be engaged and inspired by good content just like anyone else, so this is about making it easier for them to take part without feeling exhausted or anxious.
Plus if this is communicated pre-event you can increase an introvert’s comfort level and make them more likely to attend and feel able to engage without the stress.
How can they best be marketed to (i.e. channels, messaging, etc)?
As with all events, communication is key so that whatever the type of audience you have, they know what to expect and have a choice in how they experience the event. What channels you use very much depends on the type of event and overall audience demographic but a detailed event website or app to give them the chance to pre-plan is crucial.
Sharing comprehensive information pre-event that covers everything from access, parking, transport options and full venue details will help introverts navigate their way to the event. It is also good to publicise options that can minimize their interactions if they wish to—offer an early arrival slot & quiet lounge where they can check email, have a coffee, etc. Allow online check-in and print their own badge facilities—again minimising contact. All these touches help put people at ease.
What sort of content, agenda, experiences, etc do they look for?
The obvious go-to here is to have a hybrid event so people who aren’t comfortable in the live environment can participate remotely. However, there are plenty of other options that can smooth the experience for those who choose to attend. To start, don’t underestimate a well set out agenda with breaks built in, giving introverts a chance to pause and gather their thoughts, rather than ploughing on from one thing to the next—this will make life easier.
Rather than packing in content, break up plenary sessions and vary the delivery—if you can have self-serve options where people can access information on demand so it isn’t all controlled from one presentation stage so much, the better. While networking sessions can be a great way to connect, consider helping to narrow the field for delegates so this can be more targeted.
Here at The Collective by BCD M&E, we have had real success with delegate profiling pre-event and allowing people to connect through an app or event platform based on shared interests. A bit like online dating, you can choose to match with those you have genuine common ground with and then set up 1-2-1 meetings on-site, avoiding the hustle and bustle of a large networking area.
Using this same profiling/shared interest approach also allows us to create small discussion groups with time set aside in the agenda to have side meetings. These can be facilitated by someone who shares an agenda based on those topics that people matched on or expressed a wish to discuss further. All of this lowers the temperature for an introvert as they know who they will be meeting, what they’ll discuss that is appropriate to them, and that they won’t have to take centre stage and lead. They can be as involved or as passive as they want in the discussions but the important thing is they have control.
The more personal we can make the experience, the more comfortable the individual introvert will be rather than cast adrift in a sea of strangers.
Then there are the simple housekeeping factors like clear joining instructions beforehand, including timings and locations of everything. On-site, good prominent signage and floor plans with everything clearly marked from meeting rooms, communal areas, refreshments, cloakrooms and so on are a must.
Don’t cram everyone in; people, introverts or otherwise appreciate a bit of elbow room so locate things like coffee stations where they are easily accessible. If you can, and have the space, set out more seating than needed for your expected numbers so that you can have some empty seats in between people. I would also consider having a clearly designated chill-out zone. Lower the lighting and provide some casual, soft seating and have clear signage that says it is a quiet zone.
Is there anything that definitely doesn't work?
Forcing engagement and participation should be avoided at all costs. Things that are noisy like a big icebreaker or team activity in a crowded environment will lead to an introvert's brain going into shut down.
Overstimulation is a killer. You can still do simple icebreakers but keep them more for small group interactions and encourage people by including suggested topics so they aren’t racking their brains to find a conversation starter. Whatever you do, avoid the classic, let’s all go around the table and tell everyone a bit about yourself—an introvert’s nightmare!
How can planners use tech or other relevant mediums to engage audiences?
Technology opens up a whole world of interaction at events that make life so much easier for introverts. We can now use event apps and tools that allow delegates to engage on their terms. This can include anonymously submitting questions for a Q&A session, upvoting other people’s questions, using emoji responses, or taking part in polls and surveys.
As part of delegate registration, they can select their own tracks through workshops and breakouts, and book 1-2-1 meetings during the event. Again, it’s back to personalising the experience; data capture and analysis means you can tailor content, networking and sessions far more closely for each person. You can even set up some pre-event groups online where people can start conversations around virtual topic whiteboards, exchanging ideas and getting to know others before setting foot in the real world.
Of course, there are plenty of low-tech ideas that can still add to the experience. Have things like board games and activities that will naturally draw people in to participate and start conversations around a table. Have trivia cards in the refreshments areas that can then promote a lunch break chat. For your breakouts, ask people to decide whether they want to be an active participant or just listen—this can easily be identified by a coloured lanyard so speakers/facilitators know who to call on in group sessions.
We as event organisers need to be more open to making every experience more inclusive; we know one size doesn’t fit all even with large meetings and now we have the technology and tools to help make everyone feel more at ease. Creating an introvert-friendly experience, or one that people with additional hidden needs will benefit from, will increase the overall success for everyone.
First published by C&IT here.