Right then, this one is (partially) personal. I’ve incorporated stuff from other people too – partially to broaden the reach of this blog but also to protect my privacy! 😉 The big question is this: if you’re off to a big event such as a conference, how you handle your nerves? I’m not talking about when you’re a speaker here (because I’ve posted a million and one tips on handling nerves over on the presentation-skills-blog over the years!) or the big, professional conferences where no one knows anyone and it’s all anonymous-but-hugely-professionally-organised. All you need to do there is follow the instructions, turn up on time, and take notes from the presentations (yeah, I know it’s not that easy but stay with me)…
Why? Just why?
As you read this blog you’ll probably end up asking yourself why the heck I’d go to this thing at all! 🙂 Long story short, I had no real choice from a professional point of view. My absence could have caused problems for a number of other people, as well as being detrimental to my professional aspirations. In short, it was too good an opportunity to miss!
I’m talking about the middle ground conferences where it’s your professional body – or at least your would-be-professional-body-if-you-could-face-the-conference, or the thing-you-need-to-go-to-for-some-serious-professional-reason. It’s the worst possible circumstance for the newby, because there are so many friendship groups already established which are, frankly, intimidating and exclusive, even though the people in those groups don’t recognise themselves as cliques. How do you handle that kind of circumstance? (By the way, I’d say a lot of these suggestions apply to things like parties, which could be handy, with Christmas not too far away.)
Unlike most of my posts, this one isn’t based on research and scientific papers, it’s a reflection of what I did, in response to what, and how well it worked…
Issue one – the braggiado in public before hand
I have literally lost count of the number of social media posts in the places where attendees at conferences hang out and brag about drinking and/or other japes of previous years. I understand that it’s just goofing off, but doing it in public looks excluding to newcomers. How the hell is one supposed to break into group where there is so much history? It’s made worse, of course, by the fact that much of the bragging involves alcohol. I drink (not teetotal!) but I don’t drink like that. You’re probably the same… Of course, it might be as extreme as that in your world but I’m sure you know the sort of thing I mean.
My action before I went? I consciously recalled all the times when my stories of past events were bigger than the events themselves. Chances are there’s a degree of ‘inflation’ going on here. It doesn’t mean the bonding effect of the posts isn’t real, but it might mean it’s not quite like it appears, when you’re actually there. That put things in a bit of context. Put it another way, it’s worth remembering that the posts on Facebook (or anywhere else for that matter) don’t always resemble reality in any significant way: reserve judgement until you see the reality rather than react to what people project.
I also spent some time actively thinking ‘you poor sods’: if the best thing you can brag about from a conference like this and the last year of your life is how much you misbehaved at the last conference, are you really the kind of person I should be intimidated by? 😉
A dirty trick I also prepared in advance here was to book a room in a hotel a mile away from the conference, not the hotel where the conference was being held. That meant I could claim I ‘had to leave’ at any point. It also had the advantage of giving me somewhere to retreat to if I needed to spend some time, have a shower and mentally regroup. An hour of being my more natural introvert self can work wonders.
Issue two – the horrible scale of it all
Looking at pictures of previous conferences gave me a cold sweat. Sure, I can perform on stage with the best of them (well yeah, I am one of the best of them, durrr!) but I’m not comfortable off-stage in nearly the same way. Pictures of the crowds gave me a tight stomach. I devised a number of tactics here.
Firstly, see the hotel-room-trick above. 🙂
Secondly, although I didn’t ever use this tactic, I’d got my phone rigged to sound like an incoming call every now and then. That way if I needed to break out, I’d got an option: “Sorry, really sorry – but this one’s important – I’d better take it”. Like I said, I didn’t resort to that, but just knowing I could dib out of any conversation when I needed to gave me a bit of a boost to stay in the conversations longer.
Thirdly, arrive early and do a fly-by. Call it a reckie if you like. Call it what you will, but I find from personal experience that knowing the physical layout of where I’m working intimately makes me a lot more confident. It means I can automatically stand with my back to walls, not entrances, for example. At the same time I know where the exists are. And the toilets. I’m not saying you should arrive so early you look like a lemon, but I am saying you shouldn’t arrive when your over-view of the venue is blocked by crowds. Balconies are a great starting point. 😉
Fourthly, know exactly what you’re trying to get out of being there. Split such a list into priorities (Must do, Should do, Nice to do). That means that if you hit your basic targets and then hit your limit, you can sensibly and justifiably take a break before heading back into the maelstrom. I found it really helpful to have a set of (say) four things I wanted and a target of hitting (say) two of them – and it didn’t matter which two.
Issue three – the big event
I can do smart. I can do flashy. I’m not bad looking and I have enough money to buy clothes that make me look good. But I’ve not got a DJ – and I’m too mean to buy one 🙂
Sadly, that rules out wearing full ‘black tie’ for the conference gala dinner. Now, technically, that black tie isn’t a requirement but black tie is optional in much the same way as breathing. Of course your conference might not have a big event that’s that formal, but every conference has it’s share of semi-compulsory enforced-fun. That means my options are to:
- hire or buy the appropriate dress and face it down
- go dressed in some other way with a ‘stuff you’ attitude (my preferred option, but probably phrased more bluntly!)
- not go to the gala dinner or whatever semi-compulsory enforced-fun you’re faced with.
YMMV, but after conversations with my wife, I went for option three. I didn’t make a fuss about it at the time, just made sure I had any obligations to be there covered, and didn’t turn up. I went to the fair instead 🙂 Having something positive to do instead was a great help. Remember, if the event is big enough to be troublesome, it’s also likely to be big enough to mean that you’ll not be missed – everyone can think you’re somewhere else. 🙂
A few more tricks…
I’ve written a lot (and I mean a lot!) of other tricks for handling nerves – such as this one for when you’re down and almost out… Or this one about being confident without being calm… And this one, about the difference between the inner game and the outer game of confidence…
All of them have their place, of course! 🙂