Advice from Meredith Efken

ACFW Advice Leave a Comment

I think it is SO important to acknowledge this aspect of going to a conference. It is REALLY hard to jump in, network, pitch, talk to strangers, and all those other social activities you need to do at a conference. For some people, it’s so hard, it’s almost painful. This is why you often find folks in tears in the prayer room or taking three-hour naps in the afternoon instead of going to workshops. It’s overwhelming for many of us.

Yeah, “us”—me included. Anyone who knows me, knows you can usually find me gabbing in the hotel lobby until all hours of the night. But the truth is, that’s only an easy thing for me to do with the people I’ve already become friends with. Networking, pitching, getting to know strangers—those are still things I feel VERY uncomfortable with.

Sometimes, the hardest word in the English language for me to say is “Hello.” Sometimes, even when I’m in the middle of a group, looking like I’m having the time of my life, there’s still a part of me inside that is convinced I’m the biggest nobody in the world and that I should really crawl back to my room before someone notices how badly I fit in with the group. Pitching to an editor—even one I count as a friend—can still make me feel like throwing up. My hands still tremble. I still get dry-mouth. Sometimes, I get so discomfited by the sound of my own voice that I lose track of what I was saying!

And there are other people in ACFW who also feel this way—even folks who seem so outgoing and confident. The truth is, a LOT of us are quite introverted. It’s not that we don’t love people and it’s not that we aren’t having fun. We do and we are! But being introverted means that being comfortable in social settings doesn’t always come naturally, and it can be draining of our energy. It’s okay—this is part of how you are made. There is nothing wrong with you, and you are not the only one. God likes you this way, and so do the rest of us.

Here are some things that I and other people have found helpful:

1) Take it easy—small doses is best. Feel free to take time to be by yourself. Introverts are recharged by being alone. Don’t fight this—you won’t win.

2) Go around with a buddy. If you need a buddy, I bet you can find one by posting on the Conference forum on the Members-only board online. Life is always easier to deal with when you share it with someone.

3) Put on your game face: this is easier if you have at least some acting ability. It’s not about not being yourself. It’s about putting on the outside the part of yourself that is normally stuck on the inside. Some people do this by having a certain set of clothing that they wear at conferences that is maybe different from what they normally wear. Or maybe it’s just you telling yourself that as you put on your nametag, you are now entering “conference mode.” Conference mode is when you give yourself permission to say hi to people, to chatter, to be more assertive…just for the morning, or just for an hour. Take off the tag or change your clothes, and you can go back to being introverted. For some people, this visual delineation is enough to help them feel more confident socially because they know it’s only temporary.

4) Set a goal. It used to be that my goal in a social situation would be merely to say “hello” to one person I didn’t know. And at first, that was excruciating! But it got easier. And soon, I felt more comfortable being outgoing in other ways. Even now, though, there are times when I have to mentally coach myself, “You ARE going to go over to that group and join in. You can do it—it just starts with hello.” But I’ve proven to myself that I can do it, and nobody has executed me for it yet. So all is well.

5) Learn some relaxation breathing techniques. Sometimes, when you get nervous, you trigger your body’s “fight or flight” response. Relaxation techniques help stop that response and help you gain control again. Alternately, learn how to harness that energy and direct it into whatever you are doing—whether it’s talking to someone or pitching or whatever.

6) Volunteer: if you are feeling like you don’t fit in, get involved helping out somewhere. There’s nothing like working with others on a team to make you feel more a part of the group. And you get the satisfaction of knowing you’ve been a help and a blessing to others.

7) The most important thing I’ve found to help with a case of shyness though is to remember that the world is not all about me. As a child of God, I’m here to serve and love other people. When I stop focusing on how uncomfortable I feel and start reaching out to other people, I forget myself and my social awkwardness. The more I look for ways to care for and help others, then I get too busy to be shy. And the added benefit is that I make a lot of friends this way, and soon I’m not surrounded by strangers any more.

Some of my closest friendships are with writers that I’ve gotten to know through attending conferences. I hope each of you will be able to know this joy as well.

Meredith Efken

author, freelance editor

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