If you’ve ever traveled for a business conference, you know well the tightness of breath and sleepless nights that begin days before, followed by the overwhelming experience of needing to feel ‘on’ among overwhelming crowds and with harried schedules. Some people seem to thrive in these environments, and you wonder what their secret is. The truth is that they’re not so very different from you, but have learned (as I have) how to overcome anxiety at business conferences and get the most of the opportunity. Here are the strategies I’ve used to help me prepare.
1. Go with goals. Weeks before the event, begin thinking about what you want to gain from it. Is it going to help you build skills, meet people in key roles, or help communicate an important thing you’ve learned that will support others? Anytime I have a business trip, I always list out three things it has to offer me professionally. As the event draws closer, I think more about the goals and flesh out some of the details of how I’ll realize them. This puts in motion my consideration of the conference as something of direct benefit to me as opposed to something I’m attending because I have to do it.
One of my goals is always to:
2. Connect with people! One of the best things about business travel is that it allows me to spend time with people I genuinely enjoy. Some of my colleagues have become close friends over the years, and business trips allow us the benefit of reconnecting. Admittedly, the first business trip for an organization is the hardest because we don’t know what to expect, and often don’t know many of the people who will be there.
In first-time situations, I’m big on reaching out beforehand to one of my new colleagues who seems friendly enough and seems to know the business: “Hey, Sandy! Any pointers you can give to help me plan my trip? I’m a little nervous because I don’t know what to expect.” If you and Sandy have a great rapport, you can suggest, “Looks like we have a networking breakfast on Tuesday. Any chance of grabbing that time to connect and talk more about ___?” Chances are, Sandy will oblige if she’s free because she’s anxious, too.
Surprised by that? Don’t be. In fact, it’s helpful if you:
3. Remember that everyone’s anxious to some degree. Whether they’ve never been or have gone multiple times, people struggle to be in big crowds because they know that something is expected of them. We all fear coming across in a way we don’t intend at these meetings. Newer employees don’t want to stand out for not understanding the flow and culture of the event. Executives, many of whom have spent weeks preparing important presentations, have their own stuff about looking and sounding professional, whether they have something of value to contribute, and other worries that center around living up to people’s expectations.
Because I tend to sit up front in sessions to avoid being distracted by back of the room stuff, my own meandering thoughts, and other issues that plague people with divergent foci, I can’t tell you how many powerful people I’ve seen whose hands are visibly shaking ahead of a session. Irrespective of the person’s position, when I notice this I’ve begun attempting eye contact, smiling slightly, and giving a reassuring nod forward to indicate “I believe in you.”
People in general respond well to this because every crowd needs a person who can:
4. Be a reassuring presence. If I know that people are all doing their best just to be there, it helps me frame all of the behaviors I see. Some people are talkative, some get very quiet and sit as far from the action as possible. It’s a climate of self-consciousness. The minute I realized this, meetings became less scary for me.
I enjoy reminding people that they’re appreciated. It’s important to thank presenters for workshops, paying attention to how well they may have handled a technical issue, contentious audience, or other adversity. I also like to introduce myself to first time attendees because I know that as hard as it may be for me to be there, it’s much harder for them. They’ll remember folks (as I do) who helped them feel at ease in the beginning. Use of light humor (office appropriate, of course) is also helpful for putting people at ease and drawing quiet people out. Talkative people, many who know they’re talking a lot to fill silence but don’t know how to stop, can be calmed if I myself breathe deeply and remain centered.
This one is especially important and deserves extra attention:
5. Take three deep breaths before any engagement. In fact, take three deep breaths before leaving your room, entering the elevator, walking into a conference room, and any other time you’re preparing for interactions. This helps center you in the present, slows your pulse, and allows you to focus on the person or task in front of you. It also allows you to refocus on the goals you set forth before the conference.
It’s here that I should offer this up:
6. Don’t trample your own self-care. Business meetings and conferences tend to be over-scheduled. It’s tiring to sit through endless sessions, and even more so to present them. Some of you know when and how to retreat back to your hotel rooms for needed downtime; while for others (like me), it’s sometimes hard to regulate needs. If you know that it will be harder to leave your hotel room after a 2-hour break, consider instead hanging out in a community area with a book or laptop. You’ll have downtime without getting so far out of the mix that you struggle to move back into it.
If your event gives you free evenings and you want to head out with close friends without the rest of the office inviting themselves, use dinner reservations and let your party know the limit. I’ve learned by sitting through large, exhausting post-meeting dinners that I don’t enjoy more than a party of 4 after meeting all day, and I tend to whisper this to friends I’ve invited to join me for dinner or drinks. By doing this, it helps me pace the rest of the conference event and arrive fully fueled whenever I need to be. To do otherwise, I deplete after a couple of days.
A business conference works best when you arrive with goals to which you attend throughout the event, and allow yourself not to be overwhelmed by the large crowds and busy schedules while you’re there. Planning, self-pace, and being conscientious of others are proven tools that I hope will help you overcome business conference anxiety as they have for me.