by Heather White

Getting out of your comfort zones

If you feel uncomfortable about going to an event, which of these strategies would you be prepared to have a go at? Bear in mind they will take you out of your comfort zone and that at first they will feel a little clumsy and strange, but if you are prepared to practise over a period of time, it will become easier. Promise!

If there is a speaker

If the event is speaker-lead, the organisers normally allocate 30 minutes to registration and refreshment and allow about 60 minutes after the event for networking.

  • Be one of the first people to arrive at the event and commit to stay for just 30 minutes.
  • Talk to the host, sponsor, speaker and other earlier guests. Then leave.
  • Next time, stay 60 minutes.
  • Next time, stay for the whole event.
  • Arrive 20 minutes into the registration time; grab a drink/food, and then find a seat and relax.
  • Read the delegates list and anything about the speaker.
  • Make a point of saying hello to those who sit either side of you.
  • Listen to the speaker, making notes and writing down one question you would like to ask.
  • Next time, do the same and also mention your question to one person with whom you strike up a conversation.
  • Next time, ask go up to the speaker after their presentation and put your question to them.
  • Next time, ask your question during the open Q&A session.

If there is no speaker

For events that do not have a speaker – just networking occasions – try some of the following ideas. Again, the aim is to build up your confidence step by step.

  • Go with a colleague.
  • Stay together for all the time you are there, watching and observing as much as possible.
  • Next time, still go with a colleague, but split up after ten minutes and join a group on your own; after this, find your colleague and stay together for the rest of the time.
  • Next time, still go with a colleague, but split up after five minutes and join other groups for a while before getting back to your colleague.
  • Next time, go on your own.
  • If you want to go on your own, try anyone of these:
  • Just go for 30 minutes, making friends with the host, sponsors and other helpers at the event, and then leave
  • Next time, do the same but stay for 60 minutes, also making a point of looking out for people you met last time or spotted last time, and then leave
  • Next time, do the same but stay for two hours; say hello to everyone you met last time, and then search the room for people who you think look friendly, nice and or interesting, before leaving
  • Next time, do the same and stay for two hours again. This time study the room and identify someone that you would not normally talk to, for whatever reason. Go and introduce yourself and see if you can connect for no more than five minutes, before making an excuse to leave. Say goodbye to a couple of people you know and leave.

If you are the host

Say the event is one where you are the host – what to do then? Try some of these:

  • Volunteer to man the reception desk and give out the badges and so on
  • Volunteer to give out the food and/or drinks, if caterers are not doing it
  • Volunteer to be an introducer for the guests – meaning your job is to join groups or speak to people standing on their own and make sure they are introduced to people they want to meet, either people from your company or other guests
  • You will need to know who your colleagues are
  • You will also need to study the guest list
  • If your event is being held at a pleasant venue, make sure you get there early and learn as much as you can about the venue facilities.

Whichever approach you use, try not to stay with colleagues too long or at all. (See How to host an event)

Pitfalls in staying with colleagues

If you are not comfortable at this sort of occasion, of course it makes life easier if you have a colleague with you and we have suggested some ways to make use of the added confidence this can provide. But there are some obvious drawbacks to bear in mind:

  • One person will always be more dominant than the other; if you are shy, the dominant one won’t be you, so if you are not careful you may end up standing there looking like a spare part
  • Guests will notice a huddle of colleagues, which does not look very professional
  • You will not gain any new experiences being with your colleagues
  • Your boss will go nuts!

How to get over the fear of sounding or looking stupid

Fear and confidence are closely linked. When we do something stupid, it can have a negative impact on our confidence. When we lack confidence, we are often clumsy and do something daft. It is a vicious circle. Sometimes, people are more worried about the outward signs that they are feeling uncomfortable, such as sweating hands, blushing and stuttering.

So how do you break this cycle? Firstly, just accept you are going to do some daft things in the course of your career. All you really need to learn is what to do when it happens.

The best way of building confidence and reducing clumsiness is to practise that which you dislike. And there is no better way to do this than going to an event to meet lots of people you are unlikely to see again, so you can practise on them. What is so fabulous about people is that they rarely hide their emotions. Consider for a moment the frown, the quizzical look, the smile and nodding in agreement...

Case study

My fear was tall, grey-haired men in suits who looked very serious. So every event I went to I looked out for one or two of them. Then, with my heart in my hand, and shaking like a jelly, I would agree with myself to spend just five minutes with them. My aim was to keep them engaged, build my confidence and control my blushing and stuttering. After five minutes, I would make my excuses and leave. I would gauge my results, basing my assessment on how they responded to me. Over time, I observed that my fear diminished.

Ask yourself why would you do this? If, like me, your decision makers are mostly men in senior roles, you have to learn to get comfortable with these people and be able to have an enjoyable and relaxed conversation with them.

So learn...

  • Laugh at yourself when something embarrassing happens and don’t take it seriously – just make a note to avoid the pitfall next time.
  • Don’t hold back or you will set yourself aside and make others feel uncomfortable.
  • Ask questions and listen carefully, but do join in.
  • Practise your interpersonal skills on people you are unlikely to do business with and watch their response.
  • If you don’t get the response you want, try again and again and again.
  • Practise your body language, making introductions, developing conversations and questions.
  • Purposely move out of your comfort zone.
  • Place yourself intentionally in difficult conversations and learn to feel happy in these.