Meeting Martin: Managing social anxiety at conferences and events

Social anxiety is a killer. Not literally of course, but a buzz killer. Here at CN Towers, we are forever hearing about new ways to ‘engage’ delegates and it all sounds jolly lovely, if occasionally vague.

‘Creating totally unique, innovative, immersive experiences’ is something I hear very often. Lovely. Try as I may, though, I don’t fully understand what this means. If I am going to a conference or networking event, the format seems generally the same: I arrive, I greet the host, I be a good delegate and either sit and listen or talk to people, I eat goat ear on toast in a lemon jus, and then I leave. This format, despite being functional, causes much dread for the contemporary event organiser. This is why we see weirder and wackier ways of making events more ‘engaging’ and ‘unique’.

Read more Meeting Martin: Public non-Relations.

Invariably, these wacky formats often place an unwelcome burden on delegates. Most just want to turn up, sit and listen, or eat cheese and pineapple on a stick. But no, the organiser has something else up their sleeves, and this normally involves humiliation.

Workshops are a good case in point. After the morning plenary and the coffee soiree, it is customary for the room to ‘break off into groups’ for some manner of ‘engaging’ hands-on task. Usually this involves a piece of A2 crate paper and a marker pen.

On the face of it that doesn’t sound so bad, but imagine if you could read people’s minds? Are they happy with the current situation? I doubt it. There are three kinds of people in these situations:

Firstly, there is the goodie two-shoes, the teachers’ pet who wants to take charge of the work group because they unquestionably have the neatest handwriting. No matter the subject, no matter the complexity, no matter that a leading scientist is also on the table, this person will take charge – deciding who is right and who is wrong at the stroke of a pen.

Secondly, there’s the person who ‘doesn’t care’ but blatantly does. This person and the handwriting person will clash. A lot. “Look,” he says. “I don’t care, but the ability to make tough decisions is the most important leadership quality.”

“No,” says, Captain Handwriting, “attentiveness is definitely the most important.”

“Fine,” replies Don’t Care Man. “Whatever, I don’t care.”

Lastly, and most commonly I suspect, there is the ‘I wish I wasn’t here’ brigade. They are usually at the event on their own, know nobody else, and do not like talking to strangers. The idea of being forced into small talk, let alone a work group, with five strangers has them reaching for the whiskey and assessing the fire exits.

As Don’t Care Man and Captain Handwriting vie for power, the quiet one is watching the clock tick by, counting down the minutes until the speaker retakes control of the workshop.

The speaker will then go around the groups to ask what the final outcome was. This is where the power play between Captain Handwriting and Don’t Care Man goes nuclear. Captain Handwriting is primed and ready to stand up and announce that “the group has decided” when Don’t Care Man, who still doesn’t care, takes over to tell the speaker that he is wrong and that it’s all subjective and that nothing really matters anyway.

Bedlam.

Whose idea was it to do the workshop? While Don’t Care Man and Captain Handwriting are clearly passionate about not caring and neatness and generally being amazing, spare a thought for the poor soul who is suffering from an industrial bout of social anxiety. They are there to learn, for betterment, for prosperity. They want to arrive, listen, take the knowledge back to their desks and carry on with life comfortably. They don’t want to have to share opinions, and then be forced to justify them with a table full of people with personality defects. They just want to take the conference as it is.

The same is true at less formal events like launches or networking evenings. Recently I received an email telling me that at the event in question I would be forced – forced – to dance because, and I quote, “it will be fun.”

No, it won’t. Fun is subjective and when I come to power, it will be the first thing to go.

I like going to football and reading about the building of Britain’s railways. That’s my idea of fun. Dancing with strangers while dressed as the March Hare while supposedly trying to create business leads, to me, is the antithesis of fun.

At social gatherings, I like to stand at the bar. I don’t mind talking to people and making new contacts, that’s the job of the journalist, but it would be difficult to lock down a Big Interview feature with someone if I handed them a business card while dressed as a giant rabbit.

My message to event organisers, then, is clear: when brainstorming your next conference or event, by all means take into consideration the pastimes of those with a fondness for handwriting, not caring, and rabbit costumes. Above all else, though, ensure it caters for those whose social anxiety more often than not keeps them away from events.

Let people sit, learn, or just prop up a bar, without forcing them to do anything they don’t feel comfortable doing.

And never, ever, aspire to tell people what is “fun”. Because you’re wrong.

Martin Fullard

Martin Fullard: journalist, presenter, producer. Martin is the Deputy Editor at Conference News and Conference & Meetings World magazines. He leads the digital channels on Mash Media’s Conference Division as well as heading up Mash TV. He is formerly a web editor at a national newspaper in the Middle East and motoring journalist.

Martin Fullard

Author

Martin Fullard

Martin Fullard: journalist, presenter, producer. Martin is the Deputy Editor at Conference News and Conference & Meetings World magazines. He leads the digital channels on Mash Media’s Conference Division as well as heading up Mash TV. He is formerly a web editor at a national newspaper in the Middle East and motoring journalist.

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