Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Don't be shy

Are you the kind of person who at the beach enters the water slowly, letting your body acclimate to the temperature, or do you plunge in for an exhilarating jolt?

Believe it or not, a few years ago I went to a high school reunion, and several people remarked to me, “You used to be so quiet and shy in high school.” Those of you who know me as a social chatterbox probably will have trouble with this image of me as a shy person. The kind of person who dips her toes in, then her ankles, until she finally can swim.

By contrast, I now fling myself into the water, and into social situations. I won’t say I don’t have moments of shyness. I’m as tongue-tied as the next person when I’m in the presence of a writer I really admire. (What to say that won’t make me fell like an idiot?)

With Left Coast Crime coming up and a whole year of wonderful conferences and workshops to contemplate, I hear worried comments about people feeling shy. “I’m an introvert. I don’t know what to say. What if no one talks to me? Everyone will know everyone else and I’ll be invisible.”

I used to have those same jitters. I hated small talk and thought it was a waste of time. But after a while I realized that small talk is the equivalent of sticking your toes in the water to get used to the temperature. It’s a way for a person who isn’t naturally chatty to warm up. Think of social interaction as an athletic event and that you are limbering up for the event.

To help me limber up, I realized that I needed to “think outward” rather than inward. That meant focusing on the person I was talking to, rather than focusing on myself. The idea was to short-circuit the “panic” questions—will she think I’m a fool? Will he roll his eyes to his companions the minute I walk away? Will the group ignore me? Will they pity me?—and plunge into the event.

So I learned to think of a few open-ended questions that I could use to break the ice. Here are a few:

For writers the questions are easy:

1)   What are you working on? You can ask ANY writer this, including the most celebrated. Be prepared to have your ear talked off. People love to talk about what they are working on.  But just in case you ask a writer who doesn’t want to talk about it, you could ask,
2)   What’s the best book you read last month? Or
3)   What have you read that you wish you had written? Or
4)   When will your next book be out? Did you have any problems with it that you usually don’t have?
5)   Any process question (where, when, and how do you work)

You may be talking to an agent. If you are looking for an agent, this is a situation guaranteed to make you tongue-tied. Remember: even agents are people. If you are at a conference, the agent knows fully well that some people are looking for agents and guess what? They are looking for clients! So approach them the way you would anyone, as if you are interested in who they are, not what they are. Here are some questions you could ask:

1)   What’s your favorite book that you acquired last year?
2)   Do you like being an agent? Why? Why not?
3)   What book did you read this year that you wish you had gotten your hands on as an agent?

Same with publishers:
1)   What’s your favorite book you ever published?
2)   Did you always know you wanted to be in publishing?
3)   Do you wish you could turn back the clock to when publishing was a less chaotic business?
4)   Do you think working on the computer has hurt or helped writers?

And of course you may run into a reader! Don’t ask what authors they like. People often feel put on the spot because like everyone else they get brain freeze when they are asked that. Instead ask:

1)   Were you a reader from a young age?
2)   Have your tastes changed over the years?
3)   How many books do you have in your TBR pile?

Or make up your own questions. But the trick is to have a few handy. The even greater trick is when you ask the question, listen to the answer. Somewhere in the answer is the next step.

Having some pre-planned questions up your sleeve will make your conference time sizzle.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this very insightful piece. I do not like small talk and people who don't know me sometimes think I'm snooty... even though I've held top managerial, supervisory positions both in private school education and the NY corporate world - where public speaking was a must!!! But - when I'm with people I feel comfortable with you can't shut me up! But selling yourself as a writer .. after a certain age ... is a very different ball game - I'll keep your notes and use them every chance I get! Your advice is great!
Thelma Straw in Manhattan

Donna B. McNicol said...

Great article from someone who considers herself shy and introverted but no one believes her because 30+ years in the corporate world gave her a social face.

Shared on Facebook, Twitter and Google+

Terry said...

Thelma, I know what you mean about people thinking you've got your nose in the air because you don't like to chit-chat. I do think sometimes it's a waste of time, but every now and then it leads to a more in-depth conversation or learning experience.

Malena said...

Great advice, Terry. I started overcoming my shyness when I attended the Book Passage Writers Conference a few years ago. I paid a lot of money for it and decided I could only get my money's worth if I put myself out there and talked to people- including famous authors like Rhys Bowen. I was scared to death at first, but amazingly, no one laughed at my stupidity and I had a great time.
So, people can think of that at any conference: if you want to get your money's worth AND have a great experience, talk to someone you don't know.

Terry said...

Malena, you're absolutely right. I should have included that people should try to talk to strangers. Once I was unhappy that I was squeezed out of sitting at a table I really wanted to sit at and was thrown in with a whole bunch of people I didn't know. I decided I could either pout or talk to everyone. They turned out to be a fabulous bunch of people and we ended up having the best time!

DVBerkom said...

Great post, Terry! Your comment on directing your attention/energy outward is spot on. Being truly interested in the other person is a great way to banish those fears!

Jodie Renner said...

Great ideas, Terry! The main trick, it seems, is to concentrate on them, not ourselves! I must remember that! :-)