Monday, April 12, 2010

30-Day Confidence-Building Challenge: Confidence at conferences

I don't know what it is about April: It's tax month and it's the month of conferences and reunions. This month alone is the American Society for Journalists and Authors conference, the Association of Health Care Journalists conference, the Power of Narrative Conference (the replacement of the Neiman conference), and the Association of Writers and Writing Programs.

It's enough to make your head spin and your stomach lurch with a whole season's worth of butterflies.

For us freelancers, conferences can be something of a culture shock. We go from working alone in front of our computers (with occasional forays out to interview people in real life) to being at a hotel surrounded by dozens to hundreds of other writers and editors. We go from working in casual clothes to having to wear "fancy" clothes--that is, professional attire.

Suddenly we have to make small talk. We feel the pressure to network--and most of us haven't a clue what that actualy means. And if we want to get anything at all out of a conference, we have to speak up, ask questions and join in the debate.

For most of us, that can be overwhelming. Here are some ways to bolster your conference confidence:

Think before you go

I don't mean "think twice before you go to a conference." It's my experience that conferences can energize your work and renew your commitment to it. By all means, go. What I do mean is that before you see a single person at the conference, come up with two pieces of information you can roll off your tongue when the time is right.

Summary of your work
When someone asks you, "What kind of journalism do you do? Who do you write for?" you need to have an answer. As freelancers, sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking that what we're doing isn't enough, and when people ask, we say, "Oh, I'm just a freelancer." Banish that from your vocabulary. Instead, think about the kind of journalism you love to do--your best work, your goals and aspirations--and come up with a mission statement you can tell writers and editors when they ask.

Something like, "I write about a lot of things, but my favorite subjects to cover are health and real estate. I especially enjoy writing about chronic illnesses and how people cope with them."

Whatever it is, know what you love. And share it readily. A happy freelancer is an attractive freelancer.

What you're working on
Sometimes this question can flummox us. Either we're embarrassed because, again, we don't think what we're doing measures up, or we don't think what we're doing now represents what we can do. In essence, we feel inadequate and may shy away from the question.

There's no need. I can tell you that as a newspaper reporter, I covered a lot of dogs of stories: Late night planning commission meetings, bake sales, etc. It wasn't my best work, but it was part of my job. Everyone understands that. Freelancers are no different. What makes us professional is that we don't always love every part of our jobs, but we still do it.

So think about what you've been working on lately: It counts. Think about one or two stories you've worked on in the recent past that you were excited about and talk about those.

"I just finished a story on how the healthcare reform package will affect working class people in my state." Or, "I just finished a story on needle phobias in kids with hemophilia," sounds interesting, whether the person you're talking to knows much about hemophilia or healthcare reform or not. All they want to know is, "Are you doing work?" and "Do I have anything in common with you?"

Look for connections

And that's the whole point. Conferences are a great place to have the water-cooler chats we don't often get to have as freelancers. I remember going to a conference last April and having a great time talking to other freelancers about the frustrations of trying to reach doctors, or the general health insurance system, etc. I shared my own personal experience as well as mentioning stories I wrote on the subject.

Many months later, one of the freelancers I was talking to about it emailed and asked if I would take over a story for her, since she had a family tragedy. It wasn't calculated on my part to get an assignment--and I would prefer not to get assignments under such circumstances--but still, it happened because I was open about my experience and background.

Take it easy

The main thing I found at the conferences I've attended is to remember that being around that many people for that many hours is exhausting. I gave myself permission to leave the cocktail hours early if I needed to--though I made myself face my fears and go to them in the first place--and visited the hotel gym. I got in my exercise to keep myself feeling balanced, and I realized that I needed to just be myself.

You know, mom always said it and it's true--but when you're insecure it's hard to believe it. You don't have to go to a conference prepared to tap-dance for your colleagues or potential clients. You can be yourself, and trust that your professional interest in the topic (that's why you're there, after all) and your general friendliness (you're a reporter--you're used to talking to people) will shine through.

Be in your body

You don't have to be "on" all the time. If you don't feel like smiling, don't smile. If you don't feel up for chatting, don't chat. But at least put yourself in the position to enjoy yourself. Go to the cocktail hours. Maybe talk to one person. If that's all you do, that's a success.

The key, to me, is to stay in your body. When I get very nervous, I err on the side of trying to see myself through the eyes of the person I'm talking to. It's a bad habit and only serves to make me more nervous. After all, when I do that, I start thinking that how that person sees me is more important than how I see myself. But when I stay in my body and check in with myself--how am I feeling? Am I tired? Hungry? Overtaxed? Excited? Engaged?--and then act accordingly, I don't have to worry how the other person sees me. I'm taking care of myself. I'm only doing what I feel comfortable with.

It's a huge relief. And for me, it built my confidence to speak more, to talk to more people, and to know that when I was done, I could go back to my room.

Enjoy your conferences!

Photo by AndyRob.

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