How introverts can work the room

I just got back from the TED conference, which always pushes my thinking and my sense of possibility.  One of the many exceptional things about TED is that it is organized to create ample opportunities for attendees to spend time together in substantive conversation.  This is a lot of the reason that people keep showing up every year (after all, the talks are going to be available online), and while nothing can compare to the supercharged power of TED talks to reach literally millions of people in a heartbeat, I’m sure just as much remarkable stuff happens due to conversations that happen at the conference.

So what do you do when presented with a 90 minute break at TED?  How do you actually meet remarkable people?

Susan Cain’s great TED talk on introverts at this year’s TED (it’s already online and has been seem more than a half million times) reminds us that the correlation between intelligence/insight/skill/leadership and the willingness to introduce yourself to total strangers is, according to her, zero.  But I also know that a lot of introverts manage to talk to a lot of people at TED.


(Full disclosure: I consider myself mostly extroverted with some introvert lurking in the wings – I err to the side of extrovert, especially when among people I know well, but when faced with the choice between a cocktail party of people I’ve never met and curling up with a good book….well, the book is looking pretty nice.)

Here’s my visualization of what it feels like at the start of a 90 minute break at TED.  I’m the red dot, the black dots are people, and the blue circles around people are their “gravitational pull” – namely, people I know best / who know me best (whether or not we intend to have a conversation) have a larger gravitational field, meaning I’m more likely to start up a conversation with them – and they are with me – with little effort or social risk.

Put another way, absent a clear plan you’re most likely to spend all your time with the people you know best / who know you best – unless you’re a strong introvert, in which case you’ll be hiding in a corner.

To explain the graphic, my options are:

  1. Walk over to folks who I know a little bit
  2. Walk over to someone I know pretty well
  3. Walk over to a close colleague or friend
  4. Go get some food and likely strike up a conversation with someone on line
  5. Walk up to a group of total strangers and introduce myself
  6. Hide in a corner (aka “stare at my iPhone”)

If you’re an introvert or if these sorts of situations are scary, this schematic might be useful because it presents a lot of options that are less terrifying than introducing yourself to total strangers (option 5).  While that is a great skill to cultivate, of the six options presented here it is clearly the most difficult to pull off and the one you’re likely to avoid completely.  Similarly, path 3 (head straight towards/get pulled towards someone you know really well) is something to be conscious about – no doubt you are being social and folks you know will introduce you to folks they know, but it’s an approach that’s bound to limit your opportunity to meet new, interesting people: if you do just this, you’ll probably spend nearly all of your time with the 5 people you know best.

So if your goal is to meet at least some new people and you’re not a big extrovert, paths 1, 2 and 4 all present themselves as viable options, with a dash of path 3 every now and again as long as you’re being deliberate about it.

(And once you do start up a conversation with people you don’t know well, spend your energy asking them questions and actually listening to their answers.  You don’t have to instantly say something brilliant nor should you spend all your mental cycles worrying about what to say next. Really listen.)

Finally, absent from the diagram (hard to represent visually) is another great option: planning in advance who you want to meet with and making a point of meeting them, either opportunistically or by reaching out before the conference.

If you do find big crowds with lots of expected mingling to be terrifying but something you’d like to improve on, experiment with some of the easier paths, working your way up in terms of “degree of difficulty.”  With success, your fears will abate and the idea of walking up to a total stranger will eventually seem like something you can pull off (hint: they don’t bite).


My first real job was as a management consultant, and after that I worked at a number of big companies, and from both I inherited a clear, incorrect sense of how my professional life should evolve.  It looked something like this:


  • As you’re starting out, your job is to DO: folks give you assignments, and it’s your job to execute (“build this model;” “complete these benchmarking interviews”; “write this proposal”).
  • Then eventually you become a “manager”: there are projects for you to run, and people for you to supervise, and you have to figure out how to do that well
  • And finally you are anointed a “leader” (aka Partner, C-level exec, etc.) – you’re in charge and you decide things

What always felt mysterious was how one jumps from one step to the next.  You could do a good job on stuff and eventually you’d be recognized and promoted (hopefully), but I knew that the cashflow models I was building as an entry-level consultant weren’t teaching me to sell projects, so how would I ever leap that chasm?  Plus, it’s a terrible waiting game: at its best, you set a bunch of ambitious goals, work to exceed those goals, and hope someone notices you and gives you that big promotion and a step up the ladder.  You’re out there checking off boxes, but you’re also waiting for someone to decide it’s OK for you to step forward and do the next thing.

This model is dead, ill-informed, outdated.   The only real purpose it served was to allow the people in charge to feel in charge, and to make sure that great ideas didn’t come from most of the organization.

Here’s a different chart so simple that it forces you to look it (and yourself) straight in the eye:

Every day, no matter where you sit in the organization and what you’ve been asked to do, you’re in a position to initiate things.  Ideas, seminars, journals, newsletters, blogs, new software projects, better sales pitches, partnerships that will change the game

When you initiate you come up with the idea and get it rolling.  You don’t need permission, because if you create something great and someone loves it so much that they want to grab it from you, that’s fine – you’ve created something of value, and you can go on to the next thing.

Instead of worrying about getting credit and your job title, worry about leverage.

Stop waiting around.  Stop asking for permission.  Start things and ask to be stopped.   Find people who will help, who can do some of the work, who can take some or all of the credit.  And then do it again.