Hi from seat 28D.
I’m en route to SXSW Interactive, the annual festival of tech and music that I try to avoid (because: masses of people, and I’m an introvert) but always end up attending because it’s so helpful. Loic inspired me to write up my thoughts on speaking in case they’re helpful for you.
Last, year, I organized a panel, Traditional Charity is Dead, and left, improbably, with a new multi-million dollar client for Samasource.
If you’re like me and a (closet) introvert, here’s my guide to making the most of conferences and speaking opportunities without going nuts. You can hear me discuss it here on Anchor.
Should I even go?
I’m a Yes Person. Are you? Yes People have a tough time saying no to anyone and declining invitations, probably because we had parents who were really strict and instilled the fear of God in us. Or maybe just because we love people and don’t want to hurt them.
If you’re like me, you need help answering speaking invitations, preferably from a No Person. No People are often in fields like operations and finance— these are jobs that require you to set limits, stick to deadlines, and herd cats. I try to surround myself with No People because they balance my shameless Yessing and put useful filters and processes around opportunities, such as:
What’s the ROI on this event? Will we win enough business to justify the cost of attending?
Does the event pay us to speak? Unless there’s really high ROI from attending, I usually say no unless I’m paid. I donate 100% of my speaking fees to Samasource, a practice that makes it easier to negotiate fees and limits what I do. (I didn’t start getting paid until about 4 years ago, after 5 years of speaking for free.)
Will I get personal fulfillment or satisfaction out of attending? If you travel a ton, this is important. Choose events in places that make you happy and expand your mind, or bring you closer to friends.
How to find a topic
Are you in a social or environmental impact-related field? Bless you. You are probably used to speaking to tiny audiences, or being assigned to the smallest break-out room because sometimes it feels like NO ONE gives a damn about this stuff. Especially at tech conferences.
But I believe that small and mighty trumps big and disengaged every time.
Choose a topic that you absolutely, positively LOVE. Speak about something that’s so close to your heart that you have a hard time thinking about it without getting emotional.
Don’t limit yourself to business topics. Some of the best talks I’ve seen cover issues like relationships and running.
Feel free to embrace failure. Think of lessons you've learned from your most poignant personal experiences, especially the ones that seemed insurmountable at the time: what you discovered when you got mugged, or had a baby, or struggled with bankruptcy.
My post popular talk was about recovering from the inevitable “Dark Days” of being an entrepreneur.
Network like a queen
When I arrive at a conference, I usually spend several hours managing my fears.
My internal dialogue goes something like this: “Ugh, I shouldn’t have worn this dress. Why didn’t I pack X instead?…there goes so-and-so, should I talk to him? I have nothing to say! What does he do again? I’m so bad at remembering these things! Maybe I should go back to my room and write. No, no. Force yourself to stay at least 30 minutes. I’m going to hang out by the food/bar and try to seem occupied.”
I HATE networking, and yet it’s a huge part of my job as a CEO. It’s how I’ve met our biggest investors, clients, and partners at Samasource and LXMI.
The best way to network is to prioritize conferences where you have a speaking role, which guarantees that people will come to you instead of vice-versa. This is much easier for introverts to manage, because you don’t have to approach anyone.
Another tip: use the networking app beforehand to identify ten people you’d like to meet, and message them to arrange meetings beforehand. I have my team help with this, and it ensures that I will know at least a few people attending (this also helps with determining whether I should even go).
Last, try not to talk so much about work. I’ve had the best time, and met the most interesting people, discussing topics like food, egg freezing, and paragliding. Everyone is tired of hearing pitches and marketing-speak at events. Be real. Talk about what matters most to you right now. I guarantee you’ll forge deeper connections that, in the long-run, will benefit your business a lot more than shallow conversations about advertising spend.
For example, I met Howard Schulz at a conference years ago, and asked him what he was reading. He responded by sending me two amazing books, and we started an email conversation about leadership that changed my life. (The books? Endurance and The Four Agreements.)
So be yourself. Be selective. And most of all: have FUN, because life is too short to waste your time on stuff you don’t love.
Do you have topics you’d like me to write about, or questions? Please respond or comment and I’ll include them in a future post.
Leila Janah is Founder and CEO of Samasource and LXMI. Subscribe to weekly letters like this here.
ps. We’re giving away free samples of LXMI’s best-selling facial care for men and women here.
pps. I’m speaking in Paris at Leade.rs April 11-12 — join me!