Sarah vs. “Da Teechur”: An Introvert’s Guide to Conferences

sarahjanethomas3

I have a confession.  It’s a pretty well-guarded secret, but, hey…since you and I are friends now, I think I can trust you. Ok, here goes: I’m an introvert.

Photo credit: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/00/SMirC-shy.svg

This usually comes as a surprise to people who don’t know me very well, as well as those who know me too well. I’m a decent actress, and one of my greatest roles is “life of the party,” but I can only stay in character for short bursts of time.  Conversely, once we get to be really good friends, I won’t shut up, and you’ll forget how you couldn’t get me to say a word when we first met.

I just returned from ISTE, the biggest EdTech conference in the world.  This year, there was a record number of attendees…roughly 16,000 in one venue, and many more online (shoutout to the #notatiste crew).  It was totally overwhelming, but in a good way.

One amazing thing was that there were so many people in my PLN in attendance.   These are the people with whom I’ve Tweeted, Google Hangout-ed, Google Plus-sed, Facebooked, emailed, etc. for over a year.  One of the most awesome feelings are making these in-the-flesh face-to-face connections.

I had a total blast.  Everybody and their mama was there. Between all of the information, the fantastic conversations, and the crowds, I would often find myself mentally exhausted.  I’ve talked to other people about this, and I was surprised to find out that I’m not alone.  With that being said, let me go ahead and share my five major takeaways  for the rest of the “ISTE-verts” out there.  (Bonus: Most can also work for other social events.)

The Five Hacks

  1. Hack one: Build upon your pre-existing connections.  This is pretty self-explanatory, but a lot of us have built a strong network of like-minded educators online.  Yes, it’s so much easier to talk to people behind a screen, where you have the luxury of filtering what you say before you post.  Yes, it can be absolutely terrifying to meet people in real life.  However, don’t forget, you and your PLN members have probably invested months or years into building a relationship.  The hard work has already been done.  Just roll with it.
    • Bonus: Reach out to people you are particularly close to, prior to arriving at the conference.  Make plans for lunch, or to meet up at a social event.  That way, you will have a guaranteed buddy.  However, also be sure to mingle and get to know other people.
  2. Hack two: Don’t take yourself too seriously.  I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but since we are such good friends, I feel like I can open up to you without judgement, right?  I kind of have an alter-ego in a way…wow, I feel like I’m five.  Seriously though, there’s Sarah, the reserved side of me, who would rather just put her earbuds in and drown out the world.  Then there’s Sarah daTeechur, whom I’m sure many of you have met.  Sarah daTeechur is the persona I described in the introduction.  She’s fun, charming, and witty.  She’s the one who sang Lady Gaga at ETK14, on a large stage in front of 500 people.  Sarah would never do that, but Sarah daTeechur?  She has no fear.
    • Find your inner teechur, or whatever you want to call it.  You may have to dig deep, but find the person who comes out when you interact with your closest friends/family/kids/pets/house plants.  If you never ever talk to anyone, channel someone you know who does.
    • People, generally, want to like you, and they want to hear what you have to say.  By not participating, you’re denying them (and yourself) the opportunity for collaboration and feedback.
    • Even if you make a complete derriere out of yourself, guess what?  Everybody does at some point.  Nobody is going to care as much as you do.  It’s not the end of the world…nobody will probably even remember.  If someone does decide to hold a minor faux pas against you, tough cookies for them.  It’s not your problem.
  3. Hack three: Listen more than talk.  This may sound counterintuitive, especially coming right after the previous hack.  However, there is a difference.  I didn’t say to stay silent like some weirdo mime.  All you need to do is make sure that you’re listening to what others have to say, as opposed to struggling to find the right words, which leads to even more awkwardness.  You can only use the, “my brain is mush right now” excuse so many times.
    • As an introvert, at least for me, listening should come pretty naturally.  The trick is to ask follow-up questions based on what people tell you.  Ask them how they came to do what they do, what shifts they see in the field, etc., etc., etc.  This takes the pressure off you to talk, but at the same time, you are contributing to the conversation.
    • If someone did something you particularly admire, congratulate them, and follow up with questions.  This helps to strengthen the relationship on both sides.
    • Make sure that you chip in with your own input, when you’re comfortable.  On the flipside, don’t go overboard and dominate every conversation.  That is not a good look.
      • One hack that I’m starting to implement is to make sure I contribute at least one idea to every collaborative and/or social situation.  For example, I attended Hack Ed, which was structured similarly to an edcamp.  During the first session on equity and access, I struggled internally on whether to contribute to the conversation, but finally shared my views at the end.  I spoke for probably 15 seconds, but from that, I was able to connect afterwards with other like-minded attendees, and we came up with a game plan to enact change.  #winning
  4. Hack four: Bring props.  When I was a little kid, I fought dirty.  As a toddler, I used to love to bite people, for absolutely no reason.  I don’t always play by the rules.  Now, as an adult, I still have my mischievous streak, but I choose to use it for good rather than evil.  At #ISTE2014, I was able to present with a member of my PLN, whose work I had admired for a long time.  Since we were presenting on gamification, we decided to award ribbons to attendees for completing challenges.  (You know those ribbons…the ones that go on your name tag.  They are always a big deal at conferences.)  We got 100 ribbons online, and jokingly referred to them as “the contraband.”  We knew we wouldn’t need all 100, so I’d use the extra contraband as an icebreaker to start new conversations.  (For example, “your name tag looks naked.  How about a ribbon?”)
      • Although we were using the name tag ribbons for a session, who’s to tell you that you can’t do the same thing, even without presenting?  Go crazy, kid.  They’ll love it.  Order your own contraband ribbons here.  You can even customize your own slogans.  How cool would it be to have ribbons saying, “Member of _____’s PLN?”  Hmm…maybe I’ll do that next year.
      • If you’d rather be more discreet, your prop can always be a go-to story.  I’m blessed to be awkward, and I have quite the repertoire of #edufails to share in my back pocket (i.e. how I was forced to sleep in a Denver airport two weeks ago, and narrowly made it in time for my InnEdCo presentation).  Just make sure that your story is not totally random or inappropriate, because that would be kind of weird.  Although, I have discovered that most educators have a twisted sense of humor…
  5. Hack five: Know when to say when.  Sometimes, things get way too overwhelming, and you start getting grumpy.  At least I do.  There have been a couple of times during ISTE where I had to return to the hotel to take a breather and regroup.  Sometimes you need a little me-time to refocus and return with new energy.  This is perfectly fine.  Just remember to come back!!!

You Only Get One Shot

Try to lose yourself when you go to these big events, as they can be game-changers if you play your cards right.  Ok, that was a horrible segue.  Anyway, one line of “Lose It” by Eminem sticks out to me as particularly relevant: “You only get one shot, do not miss your chance to blow.  This opportunity comes once in a lifetime, Yo!” Very insightful, Eminem.  Yo, indeed. I’ve witnessed some people change their lives  at this conference, right in front of my eyes.  You never know who you will meet, who can strengthen your PLN, or who shares a similar vision.  If you’re fortunate enough to be at ISTE, or #notatiste, you can’t let any opportunity pass you by.  Step outside your comfort zone, ISTE-verts!  I have faith in you!!!! See you at #ISTE2015.

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10 thoughts on “Sarah vs. “Da Teechur”: An Introvert’s Guide to Conferences

  1. These are awesome tips! I am also an introvert who has a crazy, energetic, social-risk-taking alter-ego. His tip (which goes along with your “listen more than talk” tip): Pretend you are Terry Gross interviewing people on NPR. You don’t feel so shy when you see yourself as having a job to do (i.e. getting to know people). But, like Terry, I always make sure to put myself in the interview, rather than just being some question-asking machine. It works for my alter-ego!

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  4. Sarah, “So not an introvert here”. I would add one hack. Kick the conference with your Extrovert wingman, i.e. also the human shield who can take the heat when you are overwhelmed. I keep my introvert wingman in the conversation when she really doesn’t want to say anything by being my usual chatty self (in a respectful way) and she has a good day “in” the conference.

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