It can be like a middle school dance. We’re all given permission to mingle, and we part the room like the Red Sea, staring at one another hopelessly. Despite all of us being there to talk and network, despite that there isn’t really anything else to do, you often get a bunch of introverts into a room, and suddenly it grows silent.
How can you overcome your shyness? It’s not often enough to just tell yourself to cut it out. You can’t tell yourself what to do. But there are a few ways to change your perspective that will make it easier.
1) Talk about yourself.
We’re told that no one wants to hear us ramble on about ourselves, that people are just waiting to say what they want to say. The problem with this mentality is, one, if no one talks about themselves, there’s going to be a whole lot of silence, two, you’re not going to know what to say, which causes a whole lot of silence, three, they’re not going to feel comfortable talking about themselves, and, four, they actually are interested, if they’re interested in talking to you at all.
Don’t worry about saying things about yourself. Yes, it can go too far—not letting them get a word in edgewise, bragging too much—but that’s different than not doing it at all.
Some people are really great at turning conversations back onto the other person without them noticing. If you do not have this skillset yet, certainly try, but don’t avoid saying anything. You’ll be boring, paralyzed, and make them feel uncomfortable.
2) Give them an escape route.
How do you know if you’re talking too much? How do you know they’re just being polite and waiting to leave? You don’t. So give them amp opportunity to not be rude. If they take it, you won’t be wasting your time talking to someone who doesn’t want to talk to you. If they don’t, then you don’t have to alienate them by convincing them it’s okay they leave. Lastly, by feeling that they can get out at any time, makes them less likely to take the first chance out of fear and stick around longer.
Escape routes can be a pause in conversation. You don’t want to act like you don’t want to talk to them, so your side of the dialogue should have some information, but then you can pause—without asking a question—and they are more likely to feel they can leave at that point. Don’t do it too often, however, it will look like you want them to leave.
It can also be getting distracted. Props are wonderful for the shy person. If there’s reading material next to you or a piece of artwork, or even a trim you can feel up, by breaking eye contact and stepping away to examine something, yet still responding to who you’re talking to, they can chose to stay or take that moment to leave.
If you get the feeling they want to leave, but can’t, you can give them your business card or write down your Facebook/Twitter information and say, “Let’s connect.” That sounds like a possible dismissal, but also suggests you like engaging with them and so, they won’t feel pressured to leave.
3) “Yes and.”
“Yes and” is a rule in improv (an performance art improvised without a script) to prevent the scene from a crashing halt. I’ve found that it also helps to prevent conversation from a crashing halt.
The point is to not disagree with what they said—it would force them to change direction and come up with a new idea and put them on the defense—as well as add something to give them more ideas.
Short sentences with no information puts all the pressure on the other person to do the thinking. Which no one likes. Odds are, this person is as shy as you. Unlike many real world situations, in which introverts are drawn to extroverts, writer’s conferences tend to have a high number of awkward, insecure, or just plain quiet people. So when someone says, “What’s your book about?” don’t just say, “It’s a fantasy.” Say, “It’s a fantasy. I’m playing around with how to portray lazy female characters in a likeable way.” That gives them plenty of room for questions. You might even add a, “How about you?” But certainly don’t say, “I don’t talk about what I’m writing,” because then they have to come up with a new topic out of thin air.
(If they ask you a question you really don’t want to answer, make it a topic instead of a dismissal: “Do you think talking about your book before you finish it hurts the inspiration process?”)
4) If they approach you, don’t worry if they actually want to talk to you.
So, yeah, people can be fake. People can also have agendas. They can walk up to you and then be annoyed when you answer their questions. That’s not your problem. Remembering that will help you not shut out the people who do actually want to talk to you, and prevent you from shutting down.
You want to support the people who actually want to talk to you, and you don’t care about the people you don’t. If they ask you a question, answer it like they’re really interested. And if they weren’t, and you’re boring them, then they get what they deserve. Don’t worry about looking like an idiot, because, when networking, it’s preferable to looking like a bitch, and it’s really preferable to being isolated out of fear of possibilities.
5) Prioritize making them feeling good over you looking good.
If you get people to like you, the world is at your feet. Sure, the old belief about likability not garnering respect holds true. A likable person makes his fellow conversationalist feel like she has some sort of power, like she is the one being respected. And, when she starts thinking that way, she can get annoying. But don’t worry about it.
It’s far easier to control your likability than their perception of you, because all you have to do to be likable is act like you like them. By smiling at them, seeming excited when they talk to you, not behaving like you want to go crawl underneath a chair and hide, they will associate you with pleasant feelings. They might not think you know what you’re doing, or have faith in you as an author, but they are more likely to support you, even if it’s just out of pity.
Friendly people are far more successful than the non-friendlies, so basing your actions around making them feel good is the most sufficient way to network. And, more importantly, when in the middle of the conversation, asking yourself, “How do I make this person happy?” solicits faster and more effective answers than, “How do I make them think I know what I’m doing?” and, even, “How do I make them like me?”
By not worrying about looking like an idiot, you can talk to someone who might be just being polite. You can ask questions you are actually interested in hearing the answers to (instead of being limited to keeping up the appearance you’re the authority—even if you are.) You can give out more information—and be more interesting—on things that people might judge you for. You can be a better communicator just by not worrying about what they think of you.
You can talk to people by not worrying about what to talk about.