Building a community with introverts in mind

Hey everyone. My name is Rosie Sherry and I’m an introvert. 😅

When I was young I would literally not speak to people, especially in group situations. I was the super quiet one in the class. I only spoke when I really really had to. I did not want, nor enjoy being the center of attention.

Then being half-Colombian and moving to Colombia as a teen people wanted me to speak in Spanish (as a second language). That most certainly wasn’t gonna happen. So I mostly chose to just not speak. Clever me, eh?

To be honest, I’m still like that. I’m fine and often love speaking one-on-one, but I still struggle to contribute to group situations. I’ve developed a habit of just sitting back and listening.

Despite this, I stumbled into the world of communities and have loved every minute of it. At first glance, it seems counterintuitive that this type of ‘career’ would align with who I am, but somehow it does.

I’ll try to explain why I believe introverts can be the best kind of community builders. And also why I secretly love the lifestyle COVID has brought upon us.

The World Is Built For Extroverts

"Groups famously follow the opinions of the most dominant or charismatic person in the room, even though there's zero correlation between being the best talker and having the best ideas.” — Susan Cain

It’s a tough place for introverts Everywhere you go there are extrovert design principles in place.

Things like:

  • a culture of (blindly) following influencers
  • that pressure to do public speaking
  • open-plan offices
  • schools focus so much on group work
  • meetings, meetings, and more meetings
  • generally rewarding those that are loud and outgoing
  • being ‘unsociable’ is looked down upon
  • the culture of being pushy and salesy is rewarded

I can’t speak for others, but I know for me I constantly felt like I had to try to adapt to become a person who I was not. To succeed I felt I had to go down a certain path. Hosting meetings. Speaking up. Being sociable.

I also remember I hated giving answers on the spot, I hated the pressure. I knew that to give a good response I liked to mull things over to have time to properly think about all the interconnected pieces involved.

As I grew older, a bit wiser, and somewhat braver I discovered that I could lead and create wonderful things on my terms. It’s been a journey of years in the making, slowly building up confidence in myself.

Building community as an introvert

Although I never publicly said this, my secret goal has always been to figure out how can I create a community whilst being an introvert. With a very specific focus on how can I be invisible in real-world situations. 😅

My first step into community building was creating a local Girl Geek Dinner meetup. It was an immediate hit and was always fully booked for the first year or so.

I had a knack for getting the word out, communicating things, and pulling people together. But then all of a sudden I had this event fully packed event to host and I was freaking out about having to stand up in front of everyone. I had no problem welcoming people one by one or chatting to them during the event. But get up at the front of the room and say something? No chance.

Over the years I developed strategies to build a community in a way that worked for me.

Why being an introvert is completely ok for community builders

“Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Gandhi -- all these people described themselves as quiet and soft-spoken and even shy. And they all took the spotlight, even though every bone in their bodies was telling them not to. And this turns out to have a special power all its own, because people could feel that these leaders were at the helm not because they enjoyed directing others and not out of the pleasure of being looked at; they were there because they had no choice, because they were driven to do what they thought was right. “ — Susan Cain

We can look at modern day leaders too. Barack Obama was building community very much from his early career days and there are stories of him being on the introvert side. Not quite the same story for Donald Trump.

The two styles of leadership are completely different. Obama stepped up to do what he thought was right. I’m not quite sure what words to use for Trump, so I won’t say anything at all.

Now everyone reading this most likely won’t ever become a leader of a country. So we can relax a bit. We should also bear in mind that most leaders had a journey of years to build up to the need to physically step outside of their comfort zone.

As community builders we can take our time to build what we think is right. When we take our time it helps everything feel just right. We do not need to be pushy with our goals or sales. We can find our own way to allow growth and sales to happen naturally, and through community.

Some people will truly have difficulty understanding this.

Take your time?

Not be driven by strict growth metrics?

We can’t run a business on ‘feeling right’?

There will be non-believers who will think you are just loopy for even suggesting it. And honestly, it’s tough and I don’t have clear answers for this (right now). I think, as an industry, we should probably seek to find proof of communities that bring value and ROI in a more organic kind of way.

This doesn’t mean we can always avoid doing extrovert type things, but we can certainly build things in to support ourselves in having a balance.

I took my time with Ministry of Testing. It grew to 7 figures+ with software testers from some of the best companies in the world attending our conferences. And yes, I did this with never, ever getting up on stage. Win! 💪

Strategies and tactics to build community as an introvert

Get good at studying your people

I think I’ll refer back to this post time and time again. The more you get to know your people, the more you will understand what it is they need and want.

Introverts are especially well suited for this task too. Especially because much of it really isn’t about energy zapping face to face activities. Sure, it will take practice, but with intention comes great insights. By doing this it will become easier to make informed decisions on behalf of the community.

By studying you’ll find people:

  • and learn what direction they want to head in
  • who are extroverts and want to speak
  • who are introverts but want to step up to do something (different)
  • who want to volunteer
  • who have good ideas that you can collaborate on
  • and what their skill sets are

You’ll also develop the power of knowing their names and be able to start connecting people to one another. It’s truly magical when this happens.

It’s even more magical as an introvert community builder, as people come to you. Online or in real life, having people come to you makes such a big difference to our lives.

This will naturally lead on to…

Finding opportunities for your people

As a community builder you can use your ‘study notes’ to your advantage by getting people to step into roles are better suited to them rather than yourself.

This kind of seems so obvious, but is powerful. We live in a world where getting your first bit of experience at doing something is hard. A world that people have to go and fight for the things they want. If you can be that person to give people opportunities that impact their lives they will naturally remember you for a long time to come.

Even better, if you care about diversity, you can use your powers to look for new voices to help create meaningful change.

I’ve coaxed people into things like organising, hosting, speaking, writing, drawing, facilitating, and delivering workshops. Many testers got their first speaking gig, found a job, made friends and even got married (and had babies!) through Ministry of Testing. It wasn’t all planned, but neither is a surprise that it happened.

When all these things happened, I was mostly happily observing from the back of the room. I didn’t seek credit and I just knew this is how good growth happens.

Design questions and discussions to help you move your community forward together

Take a reality check on yourself and understand the things you actually want and love doing. Community building often involves things we don’t actually want to do. There really can be lots of tedious community building tasks. That’s a story for another time though!

Wherever possible, work with people within your community. Whether it is volunteer or a paid for role, people from within will have a unique motivation of truly wanting the community to thrive. They won’t need to be taught all the important community things that often get missed out in traditional recruitment conservations.

You can do things like:

  • putting calls out for help
  • complimenting people on things. e.g. “You did a great job there, that could be a great idea for a talk.”
  • looking up their skills and suggest opportunities to individuals
  • seeking feedback and paying close attention to who responds
  • when you ask questions or have discussions try to identify positive people who you also feel align with your values

Remember that community members won’t have the vision and knowledge that you have. It is up to you to connect the dots to help your community move forward.

Be interested and look for sparks in people

Community builders can build the habit of looking for opportunities and sparks in people. The key, especially if you are looking for growth, is to look for things that will create benefit from all sides.

  • look for a spark: when you know your industry and someone says something interesting encourage more discussion or action around it
  • brainstorm: when you see a spark encourage sharing of ideas around how that spark could turn into a flame.
  • believe in them: sometimes people just need a bit of belief and affirmation they are on the right track.
  • find a collaborative win win: everyone’s needs are different, try to look for ways to grow positively and respectfully together. Traditionally it has been expected for people to help out in communities for free, this can lead to burn out and lack of reliability. Sometimes it’s easier to just pay people what they deserve.
  • not everything needs to be a collaboration: sometimes you can just help people and take joy in the success they achieve.
At our Ministry of Testing conferences we always end them with ’99 Second Talks’ that anyone could get up and speak at for, you guessed it, 99 seconds. There was always a long queue of nervous testers eager to give it a shot.

One tester shared how they had this idea for a card deck. I saw the spark in his eye and the potential for collaboration that would also create value for the community. Apart from becoming good friends, we helped each other create TestSphere. A card deck to help people talk about testing. There are now people across the globe using this card deck.

Together we made the card deck happen.

As an introvert you are probably more aware of differing needs

Everyone needs different things out of a community, being responsible for a community means you may notice these needs more than everyone else.

People need to interact in different ways and there is never a one-size fits all. The key is probably to provide options, so that at least everyone can able to participate comfortably at some point.

  • bigger conferences can be overwhelming, as part of them enable small group opportunities, or ways for people to spend a bit of time by themselves.
  • when it comes to online activities, how can you balance out things so that everyone can feel included and enjoy the varying aspects of what you create?
  • sometimes the best ideas come in the comments, rather than the main discussion. Pay attention to all the little things
About 10 years ago I spent some time running a coworking space. I had so much fun doing it and as part of it I organised lots of busy meetups. However, I also made time for one on one conversations or coffee catchups.

Has COVID made communities more introvert friendly?

Of course I wish COVID wasn’t happening, though I have to admit that I am secretly loving the virtual life that COVID has brought upon us all.

The truth is my personal life hasn’t changed that much. I was already working from home. I was already homeschooling my kids. It’s really interesting to see people scramble to this new way of life and suddenly accept the way things are.

If anything good has come out of this, it’s the acceptance and creativity people now have about how to gather.

The overwhelm of video meetings is being felt everywhere. The pressure of always being seen, or potentially recorded often causes unnecessary stress.

There seems to be a rise in audio only networks and people are increasingly opting to have meetings without video. I personally will often take audio calls whilst doing exercise or home tasks. It’s a big relief to be honest. I have kids and my house is never tidy enough!

Then there are things like public speaking which I’ve actually been surprisingly happy and able to do virtually.

Of course, being virtual brings its’ own challenges, but as event and community organisers we should be mindful of the needs of everyone around us:

  • are big video meetings actually effective or needed?
  • how should people be introducing themselves?
  • what kind of dialogue is actually needed?
  • are we giving people the solitude time that they need?
  • are we making it completely ok to leave (easily)?
  • how can we develop trust and confidence between people?
  • are there people lurking in the background that don’t have the courage to speak?
  • how can you use small or one-to-one situations to build community?
  • are you actually giving people the choice, options, and freedom to choose how best to meet virtually?
  • are you able to provide a recording, screenshot, podcast or summary notes to help people get an understanding of the culture of the meetings?
I attended a really nice meetup with 15 people recently. It was my first time. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I missed the first 10 minutes which made it difficult to understand what was happening. I stayed muted, had my camera off, and decided to lurk to get a feel for things. I knew I was in a safe group, but I felt totally unsure about how to behave.

The meetup involved people going around the room slowly introducing themselves and answering a question. The problem about slowly introducing people is that if you are at the end of the ‘introducing yourself queue’ it can be hard to participate in the discussions comfortably, especially if you are new to the community and an introvert! I felt the lack of confidence to participate early on and I was thankful that the person before me highlighted it too.

I was the last to introduce myself, after 2 hours of being on the meetup. It was a good experience, but I don’t feel like I got as much out of it as I could have. Maybe next time!

Of course, the challenge with any community is to not just build for introverts, it’s to build for everyone. Hopefully, we can tackle other human types in the future too!

I’ll leave you all with this very popular Ted video: The Power of Introverts from Susan Cain. She has a book that is worth reading too.

Thanks for reading! 🙏

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