Of course I can be myself! But are you really? There are so many factors that contribute to not being yourself.

Last week I wrote about making a plan of action for the conference. Preparing in advance and knowing what you are going to do to follow-up with your new contacts is going to go a long way in making you feel comfortable. So by all means make sure that gets done. 

Today I want to share a story I read in the Harvard Business Review by Peter Bregman titled "How to Attend a Conference as Yourself."  This post is longer than normal but worth the extra few minutes, I think Peter’s story will resonate with you…

I often feel awkward when I go to a conference. Reluctant to sidle up to a stranger and introduce myself, I roam, like I did at college parties, self-conscious, seltzer water in hand, not fitting in. In the midst of a sea of people chatting away enthusiastically, I am uncomfortable and alone.

He was speaking on a panel so he had a specific purpose… which was comforting. But what next? He goes on to explain…

I went to a conference party and just stood there, shy, embarrassed, and reluctant to reach out and meet people.

I was annoyed with myself. What’s my deal?

… It felt awkward. But, soon, I recognized something deeper behind my shyness, something more pernicious.

Once I finished the panel, I had no role and no purpose. I realized that when I’m not accomplishing something, I’m not sure who I am. I was having a conference-generated identity crisis.

That’s it! That is what gets in the way… an identity crises. Who am I in this setting?

My sense of self is dangerously close to my sense of role. I’m a writer, a speaker, a consultant, a father, a husband, a skier, etc. But who am I when I’m not actively being those things? Who am I’m without my accomplishments — past, present, or future?

Just me. Which, it turns out, was unsettling.

I don’t think I’m alone. It’s why, within a minute of meeting someone, we begin to define ourselves by our roles, our status, and our relationships to others. We think it’s because other people need that information to know us.

But standing alone at that party I realized I’d been fooling myself. Other people don’t need that information to know me. I need that information to know myself.

Once I understood the source of my discomfort, I resisted the urge to drop a name or tell people I had just given a talk or written a book or something else to identify a solid role for myself that would make me look and feel good.

Instead, I paid attention to what it felt like to be without any identity other than my presence. I noticed my desire to be noticed and my feelings of insecurity. But I also noticed my feeling of strength, and of trust in my observations and in myself. I began to relax and, once I did, I didn’t feel nearly as insecure.

Then something funny happened. People started to approach me.

Out of the blue, a woman walked over and introduced herself to me and we started talking. Then she waved a colleague over. They didn’t know me and weren’t looking for anything from me, nor I from them. We were just three people connecting. As soon as we parted, a man came over. Again, I introduced myself by name but not by role. Again, we had a great conversation and a nice, human connection.

I didn’t tell people that I’m a writer or that I run a consulting company or any other role-defining facts. I just met them as Peter. And they met me as themselves….

Peter advises…

… it’s a mistake to launch in to your business plan when you meet someone new — even at a conference where the point is to peddle your business plan. People invest in you first, then your plan. So show them you first, then your plan….

When you allow people to see you — as impressive and vulnerable as you are — then they will trust you. Because they will know you.

I found Peter’s observations to be very insightful. For those of us that attend conferences… we know those feelings, only too well. What we fail to recognize is that most people are feeling very much the same and all we need to do is be ourselves… FIRST! Trust in that!

I have a client who just came back from a conference having made a solid connection with in-house counsel from three Fortune 500 companies because she connected first on a human level. In one case they had no idea what the other did. It wasn’t until they exchanged business cards that they discussed that the corporation was in need of representation in her state. I guarantee that something is going to come of this connection… it’s just a matter of time. I would call that conference a five star success… wouldn’t you?