Alright friends, it’s confession time.
I’m the worst extrovert ever: I fear small talk and meeting new people.
I’m heading to the Write! Canada conference and I’ll be honest, I have no small amount of anxiety about being in a room full of business card wielding strangers.
Thankfully, my family loves to dole out advice. Hoping to find some tidbits about how to be professional (or at least how to feign professionalism), I sent out a distress call. I think the responses speak for themselves…
From my Dad:
- Norman Vincent Peale always said to ask about the other person and they will fill in the space. Almost everyone likes to be asked questions about themselves.
- Stalk the attendees. Ahead of time, Google-LinkedIn everyone on the agenda and make a note 1 or 2 things you’d ask each them about.
- Wear your name tag upside down. People who otherwise wouldn’t care will stand in front of you trying to read it. Introduce yourself, oblivious to the tag. If they ask, tell them you’re not good at working crowds and you’ve adapted this as a coping mechanism.
From my Mom:
Just remember all the things you learned to value as a child, look people in the eyes, be real, and listen.
From my older brother, the Lawyer:
- Follow-up: 90% of the people who “get your contact info” will never follow through with you. The onus is on YOU to initiate contact. Do so early and do so in detail…Write to new contacts within 24 hours. Not 48. Remind them who you are and your common point of connection. Most importantly, give them a reason to listen to you by ADDING VALUE to their lives. Make them aware of a news article, recent report, new book , non-profit or lesser-known government office that is totally down their alley…
- Bonus points for adding every business card to your gmail Contacts database and in the notes section, writing a memo to yourself about how you met the person, why they’re significant, what THEY are interested in and what your last contact with them consisted of…
My conference survival tip is bring snacks. Hunger control or friend-making technique? Sit next to me and find out…
From my older sister, The Teacher, the Homemaker and the Serial Networker:
- You don’t want to bog one person down with your life story…Make it like a scavenger hunt–see how many people you can talk to and make connections with. You will be a breath of fresh air if you’re talking about the weather and the food and the drinks instead of just droning on about your degrees and your books and your credentials.
- Disclaimer–CAFFEINE cannot be underrated in this endeavour…Caffeine could give you that extra push to start conversations you might not normally start, smile a little brighter when you’re not feeling brave and make the moves you normally would hesitate to make (like talking about meatballs while you’re standing next to someone in the buffet line).
From my younger brother, The Future Diplomat:
- Amelia, like you, I am an abysmal networker. My biggest fear is being in a room where I don’t know a single person. Usually, despite my courage to muster up the efforts to do otherwise, I sit by myself and pretend to look busy until some event forces me to speak to other people.
- Getting introduced is half the battle. The more important part, in my mind, is forming a meaningful connection with the person you are talking to. In my limited experience, I’ve found that the way to do this is by not following the script. As you know most conversations go like this:
-My name is ____. What’s your name?
-I work as a _____. Where do you work?
-Where did you study for college?
-I’m from ____. Where are you from?
-Oh Montreal? I lived there once. Great city. Really great…. um… scene. Yeah. The scene there is great.
-Yeah. I lived there, and I umm.. loved the scene. The things in that city were really great. You know, I would love to go back there and experience all the great things. Yeah, you just can’t get those kinds of great things here.
-Yeah. What a great city. Great scene. Great.
…And then the conversation breathes the last breaths of its wispy, pitiful life, and then expires.
Especially when everyone is working in the same field and has had similar backgrounds/life experiences, people are tired of this conversation. Maybe it’s different here in the Middle East where every aid worker’s life story reads like a Mad Lib (insert East Coast liberal arts college here, insert impoverished Asian country here, insert UN acronym here), people sometimes show physical annoyance when you go through this script with them….
Now I’m not the most brilliant conversationist, but I’ve discovered a way to break up this monotony…Usually, I take the first or second thing they say and take the conversation in that direction. I try to go deeper into another topic, so we can have a more interesting conversation that won’t be like the ones they’ve had before. I’ll ask them more about where they’re from, or ask them more details about their job (preferably ones that show that I know more about their line of work than they give me credit for).
From my youngest brother, The Photographer/Videographer:
- Do your research. Find out their history, and some recent projects they’ve done that you’re interested in. Come up with a question/issue that “only they can help you with/answer” and go from there. It’ll give you something to talk about, but far more importantly, it will stroke their ego and make them feel important. When it comes to professionals, what more can you ask for, right??
- Basics: Constant eye contact and say the person’s name to them. Yes, it’s something that Sarah does when she’s really angry at you (“Luke CHRISTOPHER Rafferty!!!!!”), but saying someone’s first name really stands out to them. It is, to them, the most beautiful word in their native language. It’ll make them feel important, and in the long run – remember you.
- Business cards/follow up emails. That’s pretty self explanatory.
And finally, another one from Mom:
Just be yourself. Maybe read Pride and Prejudice (or another Jane Austin) beforehand.
Thanks, Mom. I’m not exactly sure what Mr. Darcy has to do with conference-ing, perhaps I should give P&P another read.
At any rate, here’s hoping the upside down name tag trick works!