There’s nothing innate about confidence. It’s something we develop – usually via endeavour. That’s a key message from my book on confidence, called What’s Stopping You Being More Confident? But confidence requires us to discriminate. Confidence in what, exactly? After all, confidence in all things is impossible. I’d wager Bank of Canada Governor Mark Carney is under-confident when acting on stage, while actor Keanu Reeves would feel distinctly nervous conducting monetary policy.
Of course, their excellence in one field can help elsewhere – perhaps giving them a confident demeanour when entering unfamiliar territory. But there’s no guarantee. When pulled out of our comfort zone, we all tend to exhibit signs of poor confidence.
And there’s nowhere less comforting than a networking event – those crucial get-togethers in any sector that can determine the success of our careers.
As someone with a history of under-confidence I hate such events. Or at least did. Eventually, I researched the problem and came up with 10 tips for overcoming under-confidence at networking events. Here they are:
1. Don’t assume hostility.
Groups of people engaged in conversation have a habit of signalling their lack of need for your inclusion. But people look hostile because that’s how we interpret them. A good number will be feeling as awkward as you. Of course, there will always be those that see themselves as too important to talk to the likes of you. Fine, although whenever I’ve met truly important people they project an air of sincerity that – of course – may be affected but is nonetheless attentive and welcoming. Anyone openly showing disinterest, therefore, is clearly unimportant.
2. State the obvious.
One introductory gambit is honesty. If trying to find a friendly face in a crowd of hostile-looking people, say so – not least because the recipient will feel complimented that you’ve spied them as the friendly face? In fact, why not start with a compliment or positive remark? This could be to the person you target …“you look like someone worth talking to” …or about the venue…” what a fascinating room/garden” …or the event… “what a fantastic gathering, so well organized.” The line “can I join your conversation?” is also a tactic that can have those within scrambling to make you welcome.
3. Be curious.
You should take your cue from the truly important and develop your listening skills. Indeed, timidity can revolve around the notion that nobody will be interested in you. Fine: let’s make it about them instead. Ask lots of questions, and listen to the reply. One trick adopted by the socially adept is to develop what’s known as “empathetic listening.”Here, you’re simply using what you’re told to deepen the level of conversation, which can help you engage even potentially hostile or disinterested people.
4. Give good small talk.
I tend to like meaningful conversations. Yet these can be offputting to those there to meet new people rather than solve global issues. And meaningful conversations usually involve controversial opinions. It’s making small talk that takes skill: keeping it light and engaging. Again, compliments help, as does empathetic listening.
5. Arrive early.
Oddly, the under confident tend to delay their arrival – not wanting to be “the first to arrive.” Yet arriving late will more likely trigger those insecurities. Most conversations will be underway and the pattern of the evening well established without you. So why not arrive early? Certainly, this is now my ruse – not least because it means I usually get to meet the host, which increases my confidence.
6. Do your research.
Going through an invite list line-by-line is a bit intense but a glance for clues regarding the type of people likely to be at an event – and exploring Google for a few titbits that can be thrown into conversations – can be highly effective. The more you know about the host, and the event, the less you’ll feel like you’re walking into a jungle full of savage animals.
7. Practice your story.
So what impression should they have of you? Practice a one- or two-line statement that describes you and your story (perhaps explaining your presence) and make sure that’s the one you deliver when asked – avoiding my usual trick of hiding behind self-deprecation. Yet the aim is to build your confidence, not win a major contract or job offer. With your story prepared – focus on enjoying the event and improving your people skills.
8. Watch your body language.
Your body is giving strong signals the entire time, so make sure these, too, are geared towards projecting confidence rather than timidity. Shoulders back, head up, hands unclenched, arms unfolded: that sort of thing. Develop strong eye contact and practice your smile so it at least looks genuine. And also try to dress well. The wrong clothes can kill confidence while a natty suit and sharp haircut can help you positively radiate.
9. Avoid props.
Booze is an easy way to make yourself more confident but it has rapidly-diminishing returns with respect to your effectiveness. If you feel a glass of wine is required to “oil the wheels” – fine. If you feel two or three are necessary, it may be worth noting whether your intake is ahead of others. Certainly, my awareness of drinking habits at social events has increased: noticing both those that go to events and drink heavily – usually repeating themselves, finding unfunny jokes hilarious, becoming too tactile and rambling on incessantly – and those that don’t – including nearly all those important people you may want to impress.
10. Leave early.
Don’t bolt for the door as soon as the first conversation’s over. But don’t over linger (especially if the free booze is having an impact). I normally set myself the task of having five good conversations, as well as meeting the key people I set out to meet. Then I call it a day: pretending, if asked, that I’ve somewhere else I need to be.
This article was republished with the permission of Robert Kelsey, and originally appeared in the Globe & Mail. Kelsey is a best-selling author, founder and CEO of a successful London PR agency, and co-founder and deputy chairman of a leading entrepreneurs’ think tank: The Centre for Entrepreneurs. His latest book, The Outside Edge (WH Smith’s “book of the week” in April 2015), includes deep research, strong insight (including personal struggles) and practical guidance to help tackle the insecurities that blunt our potential for achievement. It can be purchased here.