How I overcome business meeting anxiety by being honest and vulnerable
I’m driving along the Housatonic River on route 34 toward Newtown, trying to enjoy the newly changing leaves – the reds, oranges and yellows hanging down over the road on a sunny fall morning – but, all I can think about is what I’m gonna say at this networking meeting that starts in an hour.
I stop to grab a bacon, egg and cheese – and another coffee, before getting onto Interstate 84 West. I’m on my way to a hotel in Danbury (CT) for a BNI meeting. That’s an acronym for Business Networking International, a group of business owners and salespeople who get together each week to trade referrals, and help each other meet potential prospects. I had been to meetings like this before, many times in fact. I like the structure of it, compared to the more general cocktail hour type networking. But what is causing me anxiety is the fact that I’m gonna have to stand up and give my elevator pitch to a room of 20 or 30 people. I’ve done it probably a hundred times, but I’m still afraid.
Too much coffee. You’d think I would have learned by now that all that caffeine probably doesn’t help my anxiety. But, the little comforts – the food, drink, and snacks before and after the meeting are what get me through. (I had given up all of the other, much stronger vices.)
There I am, cruising down the highway in my Honda Civic, loudly reciting my commercial, competing to hear myself against the loud rumble of the tires at 70MPH. I have some notes. I had tweaked a few things from last week’s pitch, thinking THESE words will get people to react, and get them to come running up to me afterward and say, “Oh Mike, you are so awesome! YES, sign me up! YES, I want to pay you lots of money to make a video for my business!”
That’s how I thought.
I had been struggling to keep enough customers coming through the door to pay the bills to feed my family, and I was in a perpetual state of desperation, for years – seeking out the right words that would finally open up the floodgates. I was searching for a holy grail to solve all of my financial problems. I was determined to write a magic elevator pitch.
Was I trying to build relationships? No.
Was I trying to make friends? No.
It was all a con job. What can I say to these people, to get what I want.
Of course, I didn’t know that’s what I was doing. I’m actually a really nice guy! I love helping people, and when I’m working to produce a video project, I make it all about them, and it’s all about authenticity. But when in “sales mode”, I seem to get my wires all tangled and crossed.
Is it any wonder I was full of anxiety heading into this meeting?
There was so much riding on it! I was emotionally charged with such high expectations. I NEEDED to make a sale.
Then it was time to start the meeting. Ten minutes of announcements, explaining how things work, and leadership introductions. Blah blah blah. They start going around the room. The tables are set up in a rectangular circle, with everyone sitting, facing in.
“I’m Joe Johnson, and my company is called Circle Box HVAC. We specialize in ….”
My heart is pounding.
“Good morning, I’m Davey with Floyd & Kramer Law Firm, did you know that 1 out of 10 car accidents result in a ….”
My palms are sweaty. I try to dry them on my legs.
“DON’T BUY ANOTHER BOX OF BUSINESS CARDS! (most exuberantly) Until you talk to my team at Hour-Man Press! We have an amazing deal, just for the month of October – a real spooky deal! Go to our website at www dot ….”
It’s getting closer to my turn. My hands shake as I open up my folded cheat sheet to refresh my memory about what I’m going to say.
“Just a reminder,” the group leader interrupts. “Visitors will go after all the regular members do their commercials.”
I’m slightly relieved – they skip over me, for now.
Then something happens. Over the next 10 minutes, as each other person stands up to speak, I suddenly become very present, hanging onto each word being said.
I stopped thinking about what I was going to say, stopped calculating, and looked around the room. I noticed that there are a bunch of real people to my right and to my left. I’m sitting elbow to elbow with other PEOPLE – human beings.
They were all little kids once. I thought about my own kids. Many of these folks are probably scared too. Actually, I can see it now. The HVAC guy, with his logo-embroidered Dickies button-down shirt and blue jeans, seemed kinda nervous. You could tell he’s wasn’t used to being in meetings like this. He probably spends the majority of his time working by himself in basements and attics.
I can feel my pulse slow down. It was as if someone had let the air out of the stress balloon I had been blowing up all morning.
I realized in that moment of clarity, that perhaps I had been doing it all wrong. When I work with people during a video shoot, it’s all about being in the moment with them, just having a real, spontaneous, and heartfelt conversation. Unscripted. Then why did I think I need to put on a dog and pony show for these nice people? I wasn’t there to entertain, to give a stand-up comedy show. I was there to be of service, to attract the right customers into my business, who value and need what I have. And what I have to sell is ME. So why not give them ME?
It’s my turn. I stand up.
“Good morning.” Deep breath. “My name is Mike, and I really appreciate you letting me come and visit this morning. I’m sorry … I’m a little nervous. I wanted to try and say the exact right thing, so I could make a good first impression … and I’ve making myself crazy all morning thinking about it. Does anyone else ever do that?”
I scan the room. People are nodding, and I get some smiles and chuckles. I can feel the energy as they start to lean in.
I continued on for a minute or so, sharing what I love about what I do for a living, then I sat back down. My neighbor to my right gave an encouraging “good job”. After the meeting was over, a few people came up to me and asked for a business card. One person was extremely interested, “Hi Mike! I just love your authenticity. I think you are exactly who I’ve been looking for to do my video project.”
So, I threw away the script, and let go all control. I was completely honest and vulnerable – and I had one of the most effective networking experiences EVER. I felt connected to people. Hell, I think I even enjoyed it! And I got a new client.
People don’t want me to be perfect. That’s not real. Perfection is for glamour magazines and slick movies. In business, it’s all about relationships. It’s about people. Something happened to me that day, that I hope I’ll never forget. When I’m in the moment, not in my head, and I allow the words to just come out in whatever uncontrolled awkward fashion they’re meant to come out in, it’s almost as if I tap into an unseen power – an energy that connects me with other people – that helps me go places I can’t normally go.
It’s not about the specific words I say. It’s about one soul communicating with another.
And it’s surprisingly easy to tap into – I just need to be OK with not knowing exactly how it’s gonna go, and remain present and vulnerable. (The old way, trying to control things wasn’t working anyway!)
Header image of a fawn at Silverman’s Farm by Heather Prescott Liebensohn
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