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How We Created an Introvert-Friendly Event: A Case Study of WDS

The gist: Most events are terrible for introverts. These insights will help you create better events for introverts or choose better events to attend if you are one.


For five years, I had the privilege to be behind, in front of, on top of, underneath and around the scene of The World Domination Summit. Our small core team watched the event blossom from just a seed of imagination to an event for over 3,000 people.

During my tenure, I was regularly amazed by the people I worked with. More though, I was amazed by who showed up year after year: introverts. My inside joke is that I loved planning WDS but I wouldn’t attend because I’m too introverted.

Really, though, I would attend WDS. It’s one of the only events I would go to—whether 100 people or 10,000.

We were far from perfect, but something we got right from the beginning, and have got right all along, is making an event where introverts feel at home.

I’m proud of that because many events do an extraordinarily poor job creating a comfortable environment for people like me. They assume we don’t want to go to events or that there’s nothing they can do for us. Both assumptions are, of course, wrong.

WDS is a haven for introverts and extroverts alike, and that’s not by accident. I sat down recently to think about decisions we made over the years that have created that welcoming environment. There were a few key decisions and actions that helped cultivate it.

My goal sharing this today is twofold:

  1. I hope it equips others creating events—from dinner parties to conferences—with some tools to make their events better for the 50% of the world they may be underserving.
  2. I hope it helps introverts like me—who enjoy big events but are easily overwhelmed by them—pick better ones to attend.

The Introverted Team

I can’t speak for all events, but my observation is that they’re pretty homogenous personality-wise and lean towards extroverted.

WDS is a success for introverts because it’s created by them. To build an event that serves the introverted among us, you need introverts on the team. Just like I would fail at guessing how to build something spectacular for extroverts, extroverts will probably fail to build something great for me if they don’t have thoughtful input from people like me.

Because we were an introverted team, it’s impossible to build or change any part of the event without asking, “How will this affect the introverts in our community?” And because the people on our team are varied on the introvert spectrum, there’s always hearty debate around it.

Takeaway: If you’re planning an event and you want to serve introverts, have some of them on your team.

Big surprise! If you’re an attendee, you don’t have a lot of control here, but you can always let the organizers know your needs aren’t being met. If enough people do, organizers might listen.

The Introvert Experience Is a Core Feature

From welcoming attendees to Portland to planning the main stage to all the fun side events, we put the experience of introverts at the core. This is different from how most events work.

intro-friendly-events

Showing up in a new city can be intimidating, so we give our attendees lots of information leading up to the event about how to make their way around Portland and what to see, eat, drink, and do. We pick experiences we’d enjoy, and that works because we’re introverts.

Rather than process everyone at once in a big crush, we run registration for a whole day so people can trickle in as they like and no one gets stuck in a crowd.

I set up world records that lots of people came to1, but the point is to have a shared experience together, not force people to network. It’s the same for the main stage events and all the extracurricular activities we planned.

We also had a tradition of providing programming for our “highly sensitive” crowd. We offered massages and hosted hammock nap rooms—things really introverted people appreciate after a long day of overstimulation.

Takeaway: If you’re organizing an event, don’t make your introverted attendees an afterthought. Build them into the core experience.

If you’re attending an event, make sure you save plenty of time throughout for yourself and whatever quiet time you need to have a great experience when it’s time to socialize again. Look for side events with strong programming so that it’s clear what you’re showing up for and avoid generic “meet & greets.”

The Unconference: Mostly Lame, Mostly Terrible for Introverts

Most events like WDS seem to be planned in one of two fashions:

  1. Top-down: Everything about the event is meticulously planned and you’re told where to be and what to do at all times.
  2. Bottom-up: Also known as the unconference, the schedule is primarily dictated by the audience.

Both styles have strengths. They both have big weaknesses, too.

The top-down style is great for clarity. You never wonder if you’re in the right place or doing the right thing. But it’s also unbearably restrictive. What if you don’t feel like going to a mixer and your only other option is to sit in your hotel?

The unconference can be good for community but often suffers in the quality control department. It feels like no one is in control of the experience. You just do whatever gets the most votes.

Neither of these options are perfect for introverts (or even extroverts). At WDS, we used a hybrid model.

We curated the main stage and several extracurricular events. Then, we opened blocks of time during the day and evening for attendees to propose and host their own meetups. We promoted and supported the ones we thought most people would enjoy, but anyone was welcome to host, and anyone could find something for them using the app.

The result is that we spent about 70% of our time together in curated experiences and 30% of our time going to unconference-style meetups and events. But the amount of content the community created for that 30% far eclipsed what we created ourselves.

You can’t experience it all but, during that time, you could choose what’s best for you.

introvert-balanced-event

It’s the perfect balance for an introvert. If you wanted someone to curate your WDS experience for you, we had you covered. And if you wanted to make your own experience, there was plenty of time for that and lots of options, too. If you didn’t feel like being surrounded by hundreds of people, you could find a small, quiet meetup. When you were ready for the crowd, it was waiting for you.

Takeaway: When you plan an event, curate the experience but leave time for people to make their own plans, too.

If you’re attending events, look for the ones that understand this need. You’ll be happier when you go home.

Final Thoughts on Creating Events for Introverts

Most introverts would tell you, despite our stereotype, we enjoy events. We love building connections and being part of a community. But events big and small are often organized in a way that don’t match up with our idea of a good time.

That’s not to say one way is right or wrong, but if you want to create an event that brings more people together and creates a tighter community, these lessons from five years with WDS can help you make yours a great fit for more introverts.

And if you’re an introvert who enjoys getting out to events, hopefully this will help you apply a new filter when deciding which ones to go to. Rather than buying a ticket and hoping it works out, you can take a look at how it’s organized and see if it’s the type you’ll enjoy.

Footnotes

  1. See here, here, and here.