by Morra Aarons-Mele
I have a secret: Sometimes, if there is a professional event I should be at but can’t attend, I hashtag and tweet as if I’m there.
I’m torn about these events. I never want to go. I’m an extreme introvert and I have social anxiety. When I’m there, I have to force myself to go into rooms, and my anxiety has made me get straight into a cab and head to the airport, days early.
Sometimes even the most committed hermit has to get out there, though, because face time matters. If you have a plan, and you know how to take care of yourself, you can make the most of your time in the wild, and you might even enjoy yourself. Here are my best tips for surviving events:
1. Channel your inner Oprah.
If you feel alien, unworthy, shy, or nervous in a room full of powerful players, pretend you’re there to report a story. Ask people lots of questions – this is your strength as an introvert! Listen actively. Draw them out. Even the most powerful person enjoys telling their own story.
2. Wear your battle gear.
My therapist once said to me, “The world doesn’t have to know you feel insecure.” Before I head out to a business meeting or fear-inducing event, I wear one of my three fabulous outfits, get my hair blown out, and put on makeup. It helps me transform from my homebody self into someone confident and open enough to make friends and charm people. I look like the best version of myself, and, often, I can actually be her.
3. Be prepared.
On the few occasions I have been asked to give a keynote speech, I’ve channeled Hillary Clinton, who once said, “If you’re not comfortable with public speaking—and nobody starts out comfortable; you have to learn how to be comfortable—practice.” When I have to go out in public and be awesome, I’m training for the Olympics. I rehearse every word. I rehearse the room. I find my inner Gary, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s body man on HBO’s Veep, and create a briefing book of attendee details for small talk. I even practice names before I walk in.
4. Only connect.
Introducing others (known as the “cocktail bump”) is the kindest and fastest means of escape for an introvert or hermit. One of the things I like best about hosting an event is it allows me to introduce everybody else, and then I can run away. The conversation can go on without me, and people feel good being brought together.
5. Chunk your time.
When you’re at a conference, set a minimum target, pace yourself, and then give yourself a time-out treat. One hour on earns one hour off. If you schmooze for an hour and meet three new people, you can allow yourself to go hide in your hotel room. The same goes for attending sessions, which can be a great way to learn new skills and meet people in a less pressured environment. One big chunk works, too. If I have to fly to New York or Washington for a client meeting or conference, I force myself to schedule five meetings that day. I’d rather be exhausted than fly back again.
6. Find a conference “spouse.”
When you’re alone, establish a power duo with someone else for cocktail chatter, attending events, and standing in lines. Conference BFFs also work, as do actual partners, whom you can call for a quick pep talk when you’re alone at the bar. And never, ever be afraid to hide in the bathroom. Whether your kindred spirits are also hiding, or they’re just in there to pee, something about being in that shared space lets people’s guard down.
7. Make someone else comfortable.
You can make people feel good simply by smiling at them. Honestly, asking a stranger a simple “how are you?” is the gateway drug to feeling comfortable. Research shows that the mere act of smiling at a stranger makes you feel more socially connected to others immediately after. So even if the person you’re smiling at doesn’t notice, you’ll feel instantly more confident and connected.
8. Have a job to do.
Structure is key to comfort level. For a cocktail party, build in structure in an unstructured situation. It can be as easy as finding a person you’ve been meaning to meet. Talk, exchange emails, and then you’re free to leave.
9. Share your expertise.
It’s counterintuitive, but, for a shy person, sometimes the best position to be is in the front of the room. There are many of us who hate networking events but excel at talking about our work in a room full of people who will understand and appreciate it.
10. Know what comes next.
Are you attending the plenary session? Is there a dinner party the second night? The more you plan your schedule so you know you’re hitting what you need to, the calmer you’ll be (and the quicker you can exit).
11. Follow up.
The magic of networking is that you can follow up from behind your screen. When I come home from an event, I put all the new business cards I have gathered in a safe place. I write down next steps for each; it could be everything from suggesting a phone call or coffee meeting to sending an article we discussed or a helpful introduction or link. Then, when I’m in a strong mood, I’ll reach out via e-mail and suggest a next step.
12. Reward Yourself
Finally, give yourself a reward at the end of the day. You want to leave the event day with a positive memory, so you lower your internal stress response for planning the next one. If room service and a movie works for you, great. Don’t judge yourself. Train yourself to push through the public time and then recharge.
Image courtesy of @curatingcamille
Morra Aarons-Mele is the founder of Women Online and the author of Hiding in the Bathroom: An Introvert’s Roadmap to Getting Out There (When You’d Rather Stay Home).