Being prepared can help introverts start conversations at big conferences, says Paul Brack.
Guest contributor Paul Brack
In the last few years, introverts have become the new geeks. In the past we were painted as miserable wallflowers. Now, thanks in large part to Susan Cain’s book Quiet and her accompanying TED talk in 2012, we’re often portrayed as the conscientious, thoughtful people who are going to quietly invent the technology needed to save the world.
Whilst the reality has of course always lain somewhere between these two extremes, there’s one thing that is true for introverts: we generally struggle with networking. Introverts find over-stimulating environments, like large groups at conferences, difficult to navigate. But that shouldn’t put an introverted scientist off from adapting their networking tools to suit their character.
At its heart, networking is about forming relationships. Some psychologists have suggested that introverted people take longer to make connections than extroverted people, as they find it more tiring. This is based on the description formulated by Katharine Cook Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers (building on the work of Carl Jung), the developers of the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ‘personality test’, that whereas extroverts are energised by meeting new people, introverts are drained.
However, in science, and especially in academia, it is essential to have a broad network. Collaborations and even job offers can often stem from simple conversations at conferences or online. As a result, it’s paramount that introverts find a way to engage in conversations. During my PhD I’ve worked out some tricks that have helped me to go about networking effectively, in a way that suits my introverted personality.
Introverts often struggle with small talk, but, give them a reason to speak to someone and they’re fine. Tell them to just ‘have a chat’ and things can get messy. So before I start talking to people, I always work out mentally what I’m going to say. By doing this, I come across in a composed manner and am able to avoid the awkwardness that might otherwise ensue.
One at a time
As my PhD project is quite different to the rest of my research group, I often find myself attending conferences by myself. At the first couple, I stood around on the fringes, but even someone as content with my own company as me got bored of that pretty quickly! Approaching large, noisy groups immersed in free-flowing conversation was daunting (it’s difficult to mentally plan what are going to say when you don’t know what a group is talking about), so instead I started looking for other people in the same situation as myself, striking up the one-on-one conversations which I, like most introverts, find more comfortable.
Join a committee
A great way for an introvert to form connections is to join a committee. There are committees all over the place – every learned society has a sprawling web of them, in perpetual need of new volunteers. Join one, and you are instantly part of a network. As you start organising events and doing other activities with your fellow committee members over an extended period of time, you will have the chance to show them what you can do, and form meaningful connections.
Social media is a beautiful tool for an introvert. Scared you’re going to say the wrong thing? Don’t worry, you can retype your message as many times as you need to before you hit send. Don’t want to cold call someone? Tweet them instead. It’s a great way to contact people who you may not know how to approach face-to-face or over the phone.
Present, present, present!
Submit those abstracts and give as many oral presentations as you can. Yes, you may hate it. And yes, the first few you do might be sweaty, stuttering nightmares. But if you persist, you will get better. I have now reached the stage where I actually enjoy giving presentations, which is not something I would have believed possible a couple of years ago. More importantly, by presenting at conferences, you are giving people a reason to talk to you; you’re effectively inviting them to network with you. As I am always more comfortable when somebody approaches me, this suits me down to the ground.
Plenty of introverts think they need to change their character and become pseudo-extroverts in order to network effectively. I hope these tips have shown you that this is not the case.
Paul Brack is a winner of the 2015 Naturejobs Career Expo journalism competition, and a materials chemistry PhD student in the Energy Research Laboratory at Loughborough University. He is developing catalysts to generate hydrogen from water. Paul has won prizes in several science communication competitions during his undergraduate and PhD studies, and aspires to make the jump from amateur to professional science writer. He tweets at @paulbrack25.