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Wallflowers in Bloom

It seems to come so easily to many politicians: the hearty handshake, the half-arm hug, asking after family members then listening with oh-so-intrigued eyes as the stories roll in. But what about those for whom small talk and glad-handing isn’t a natural part of their modus operandi? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. Do you have any advice for someone incredibly shy who now all of a sudden has to represent their office at evening receptions as part of their job? It would be nice to get over the shyness for reasons of personal career advancement, as well. Being in a room full of strangers is more daunting than it looks.

A. Being in a room full of strangers can be daunting to anyone; even the most extroverted can stammer through talking points or have trouble feigning interest during the umpteenth round of small talk. But part of being a staffer includes representing the boss, and D.C.’s after-hours events often include the wine-and-cheese reception circuit, with an occasional turn at the podium. And this is even more frequent back home, where it’s the district and state staff that are reading proclamations, cutting ribbons and visiting the classroom in the boss’ stead.  

So how to overcome shyness and represent the boss in the best possible light? Hill Navigator has some suggestions for you.  

1. Know the small talk secrets. The goal of a good small talker is to get the other person to do the chatting. Ask open-ended questions and wait patiently for responses. Often, people are glad to fill you in on their lives, or causes, or itinerary of planned events while they’re visiting D.C. Don’t jump immediately to fill the silences; a friendly nod of the head is a well-recognized sign for “do go on.” And when you run out of things to talk about, have a friendly, clean line that exits the conversation gracefully. “It was so nice to meet you” works wonders.  

2. Come prepared. Spend time getting to know the organization you are visiting. Look at their website, peruse their press releases and speak to a member of the group if you know one. If you’re making remarks, read them well ahead of time and have an idea of the tone and shape of the audience. Is it a young group of aspiring politicians, or is it an academic group who gather in Washington every year to discuss parliamentary changes? Whatever the dynamics, you’d be wise to internalize them and tailor your remarks. The more you know about whom you’re speaking to, the less like strangers they seem.  

3. Remember it’s about the boss, not you. Hill Navigator thinks you’re great — and so will your audience — but your words will have force because you’re there representing the boss. Do your best to take yourself out of the situation; remind yourself you are there as a conduit, and the words you are reading belong to whom you work for. Doing so may give you additional perspective, both on why your presence is so important, but also why the audience’s scrutiny and feedback may be directed toward your boss, not you as an individual.  

4. Bring the interns. Yes, those interns, whom Hill Navigator has written about so many times. Interns are always looking for something to do, so bring them along to the event. Having another person with you can help alleviate some of the social anxiety and awkward moments lurking by the cheese tray. And when you’re speaking, you’ll have at least one familiar face in the audience, hopefully one who smiles back.  

5. Practice. Such a platitude, but so true. Sure, talking to yourself in the mirror might help, but so will attending smaller events in preparation for larger ones. Tag along with an experienced staffer, accompany the boss to see how he or she interacts with others, and use every opportunity to interact with a constituent as a chance to brush up on conversation skills. You’ll learn quickly that if you’re a willing listener, you’re apt to find someone willing to chat. If nothing else, people will appreciate your enthused interest for what they have to say.

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