How I overcame my pathological fear of peopling
A recent event gave me the perfect opportunity to break free of my fear of networking along with the chance to test a few strategies I’d picked up! Here’s how it went.
Last month I was delighted to attend my first (also Australia’s first) copywriting conference in Sydney. Put together by a much-respected industry expert and her team of fabulous helpers, it was eight or so hours of sheer delight for copywriting minded folk.
Now, I know I’m not alone when I say I’m utterly terrified of networking (or any type of course or conference situation). The idea of walking into a room of people I don’t know is horrific. Even walking into a room full of people I know and love is traumatic. Confession: I found my own wedding a little overwhelming.
So, I’m particularly proud of the breakthroughs I made at this conference on the social side of things. Instead of completely freaking out at the thought of a whole day making small talk, I went in with a plan. A rough plan, but it worked and I think I did OK. So OK that I thought I’d like to share my findings. If you know you need to connect with people to develop your business, but peopling isn’t your favourite hobby, try these tips:
1. Walk in with someone
Here I was lucky. Several other copywriters who live near me were keen to share an Uber. We picked up another attendee as we crossed the street to the venue. This made us a critical mass of five walking in together. With so many people in our group and multiple conversations already underway, the potentially scary moment of entry was a non-event.
"I hate networking. Even walking into a room full of people I love is traumatic. Confession: I found my own wedding a little overwhelming. "
Tip: Find a friend, share a cab, meet outside, walk in together. Even if you never see each other again at the event, it makes those first moments less daunting.
2. Resist the urge to cling
Once we arrived it was tempting to stick close to my Uber buddies. But I was determined to break my usual habits and branched off as soon as I saw a familiar face. I also made sure that after I’d spent some time with one person, in the coffee queue or the lunch line, I didn’t keep clinging, but moved off to speak to other people. As a natural clinger, this wasn’t easy but I did it.
Tip: After you’ve spent a little time with each new person, excuse yourself politely move on to others, ignoring your inner fear merchant telling you to stay and cling.
3. Make an open circle
This was an awesome suggestion by one of the other conference goers. If you’re talking in a group, make sure the circle isn’t closed. Rather than having your back to passers-by, stand slightly on the side. This way, if someone is wandering past, perhaps a little lonely, it’s easier for them to join in. I love this, and plan to use it often, at school events and parties too.
Tip: If you’re part of a chatting group, be aware of what your body positioning says to anyone walking past who might like to join. Make eye contact, smile and welcome others into the circle.
4. Chat in threes (or more) rather than twos
This was an a-ha moment for me. Bringing a third person into a conversation not only adds another conversational tangent but it takes away the intensity of speaking one-on-one. It also means if you do have to exit, you’re not leaving anyone like a shag on a rock.
Tip: If you find yourself in a two, cast about for a third person to bring into the conversation. Trap them in a headlock if needed.
5. Remember, other people are as uncomfortable as you
Many, (though not all) of us at the conference were committed card-carrying introverts. Three days later I was still getting over the amount of peopling I did on the weekend, and I didn’t even stay for drinks afterward. Knowing many other attendees were just as awkward and unsure about striking up conversations made me braver. To be honest, for a bunch of (mostly) introverts it was an incredibly social gathering. We were all off Facebook and in the real world and we were making the most of it. This must be what happens when you find your tribe.
Tip: If you’re approaching a potential new friend, smile, try not to look like a serial killer (I have severe bitchy resting face), quickly think of a good conversation starting question (I’m hopeless at this) and launch yourself on their mercy.
6. Don’t be afraid to approach the speakers
I made this rule up for myself when I arrived at the conference. Considering how much work they had to do to prepare, write, practise and just bloody well stand up on the stage, I take my hat off to them all. They were generous with their knowledge and interesting and funny and marvellous. So, I tried to find them all afterward and tell them so. I didn’t quite get around to everyone (possibly 50%), but my goodness I for reals spoke to one of my idols. In person. And she was lovely. I so loved her talk and wanted to thank her for the ideas she’d shared. Thanking a speaker doesn’t have to mean you stand there fangirling for 15 minutes, even a five-minute quick chat is a bonus.
Tip: Wait for a moment when the speaker is free and just go for it. Tell them how you much you like their blog or their book, pick out a point in their speech that made you sit up and take notice. Most speakers will be glad you did. Because they are people.
7. Be deliberate in your actions
This time, for the first time ever at any conference or event I’ve attended, I didn’t just bounce around the crowd or aimlessly wander. I knew I had two half-hour tea breaks and one hour-long lunch to ‘get through’. Instead of dreading them, I chose to get over myself and spend the time enjoying chats with fellow copywriters. I marched out there and started and joined conversations and I’m pleased to say, every break was a breeze. I found lovely people to chat to at my table, in the ladies, in the lunch queue and everywhere else I went.
Tip: If you’re having a confidence crisis the temptation is to whip out your phone and start flicking around so there’s no risk of making eye contact. Fight the temptation! Put the phone away, lift your head, smile at the person nearest you and say Hi, I’m XXXX, how good was that last speaker? Honestly, just say anything, but do it on purpose. Put yourself in control of your own socialising success.
In her opening address, the conference organiser told us that much as we might hate it, to grow our businesses we all we had to get out and meet people. Uncomfortable though it may be, she’s right. Small friendly events are a great place to start and build that networking muscle.
Thanks to this experience I have a few tools ready for my next networking adventure. And network I must. Meeting new people and building a network might be one of the more challenging parts of my job but the tiny bit of traction I made at that conference was damned satisfying.
Do you have any tried and true tips for surviving conferences?