Arriving at a gathering of human beings where you don’t know many – or any – others can feel pretty daunting. For some people, it’s a lot worse if they’re the audience for your presentation. Others don’t mind that idea nearly as much as the thought of having to strike up ad hoc conversations with strangers.
One of the most important ways of overcoming those fears is to adjust your mindset before you even enter the room. And that’s about staying curious, and adopting an attitude of generosity that says, “I’m here for you.” Putting your attention on them helps to take your attention off yourself, and your apprehensions.
To demonstrate that generosity of attitude, ‘play host’ (even when it’s not actually your own ‘party’). A good host strives to make guests feel at ease in themselves, and with each other.
Explicitly welcoming people is of course up to the actual host, but you can still demonstrate a welcoming attitude by smiling (easy to forget when you’re nervous), engaging eye contact, and striking up some small talk. Many people find this really hard. The key, as Dale Carnegie advised, is to stop worrying about being interesting, and be (genuinely) interested. The ‘genuine’ part is vital – there’s a big difference between displaying actual curiosity, and merely nodding a lot while you repeat a mantra like ‘great, fantastic’ to everything the other person says, meanwhile letting your eyes wander round the room.
Stay focused on this person – it doesn’t have to be for more than a few minutes – and listen properly to what they say. And don’t be afraid to ask their name, early in the conversation. Make sure you listen to that too – don’t be so focused on telling them your own name that you instantly forget theirs. If it’s an unusual name, repeat it back and ask if you’ve got it right (you won’t be the first person ever to do that), and even ask how it’s spelled if that helps you grasp it. Once you know their name, use it (don’t overuse it, of course – that can be irritating, and counter-productive). But showing that you’ve really taken in what that person is called makes them feel genuinely valued - Dale Carnegie again. Powerful stuff.
Conversely…. One of my worst bugbears about introductions is the response: “Oh, I’m terrible at names – I’ll never remember…”. People who say that never add: “… so I won’t even bother to try.” But I bet it’s what they’ve decided. I find that pretty insulting. If you bat away a person’s name like that, they’ll feel as if you never truly saw or heard them in the first place.
So if you want to make a good impression, get good at remembering names – whatever that takes. How? Well, there are all sorts of tricks and techniques people may recommend, and may even have written books about. For me, it helps enormously if I’ve been able to have a look at a written list of attendee names in advance of the event.
However, the technique I find far and away most effective is really listening, and really wanting to remember. And like most good habits, regular practice makes a big difference!
Paying attention to a person’s name, at least for the duration of the event at which you meet, does mean that you can introduce that person to someone else – and (if you’ve listened properly) say a little about them. Something else good hosts do well. By paying attention to other people in genuine, practical ways, you create a strong positive impression.
Playing host to others who are more nervous and apprehensive than you are is also a great way to boost your own confidence. And the knock-on effect is that you’ll begin to ‘Act As If’ you’re feeling at ease yourself. And the knock-on effect of ‘Acting As If’… is that you usually wind up feeling that way for real.
Besides, just occasionally, the quivering wallflower you’ve made to feel welcome can turn out to be the CEO you most want to do business with!