Service Minded

Debra Helwig on Marketing & Leadership in Professional Services

Stifle Your Inner Wallflower

Posted by debrahelwig on March 26, 2010

Last week, I had the chance to attend a really cool session by MECLabs (parent to Marketing Experiments and MarketingSherpa) on Marketing ROI. The materials were great. Dr. Flint McGlaughlin had some truly eye-opening things to say. There was an entire room full of engaged, bright people there to share ideas with.

And I blew it.

I didn’t talk to anyone outside the two people sitting on either side of me at my table. I didn’t initiate conversations. I didn’t try to find out more about why people were there and what they’re dealing with and how I might learn from their pain.

That’s not like me, either. Usually, I’m full of advice and ideas and stories and — well, let’s just say I ain’t shy. And more to the point, when I’m up in front of professional services marketing directors talking about networking, my first advice regarding events is “Don’t hide in the corner.” I didn’t even take my own advice! Ai yi yi.

So what happened?

Bluntly, the topic was not in my comfort zone.

See, if you put me in a room of professional services people, or maybe even social media people or customer service people, I’m good to go. I know the lingo, and I have enough experience with the industry to know the general pain points and maybe even some solutions. I have stories to tell. I can gab. It’s fun. And I shine.

But at this meeting, I was the newbie. I’m not a numbers gal, and I’m not a huge believer in ROI. I attended the meeting to see what I might learn, what I might be missing – but I really felt unsure of my handle on the topic. My tongue tripped over phrases like “quantifying returns” and “multivariate test results”. Frankly, I felt a little dumb.

So I shut up. Did my best wallflower act. And I missed out on a great opportunity to connect with neat people.

I know for a fact I’m not the only one to do this. Great consultants in our industry coach on networking skills all the time. They talk about firm handshakes. About how to enter and exit gracefully from a conversation. About asking for the business card or the referral.

But probably the most important piece of advice I can think of is one that gets missed in many coaching sessions: you don’t have to be an expert on everything.

We all seem to have a touch of this animal fear when confronted with a subject that’s not our passion: I don’t know enough yet. I’m not good enough yet. I’m not enough of an expert yet. I can’t talk about that!

Maybe not. But here’s what I figured out, after a “try again” moment at an event this weekend where the topic was way outside my expertise: You can engage. You can listen. And you can learn.

At my weekend event, the hot topic was tax implications of the new healthcare bill – another area where I am definitely out of my depth – but because I jumped right in and asked good questions instead of playing the wallflower, I walked away with a handful of business cards and a whole lot of valuable information I can use both in my job and my personal life.

It was a magical sort of thing, really. When I asked questions, people got engaged. They liked it when I let them talk about what they know. I didn’t have to be the expert on their thing (taxes and healthcare). I could be the expert on my thing (service and relationships), and my questions helped us find common ground so we could talk about both. Hooray!

You can bet I’ll be taking these tools to my next session on Marketing ROI (and every other meeting, conference, and event I attend from now on.)

Take it from me: the next time you’re thrust outside your comfort zone, stifle your inner wallflower and tell the fear to go stuff itself. Dive in, introduce yourself, ask a few questions, and listen. You’ll end up smarter and more confident. You’ll make new connections with great people.

And you won’t look dumb in the process.

Photo by Bettina Tizzy (license).


5 Responses to “Stifle Your Inner Wallflower”

  1. Debra –

    You’re spot on with this advice. I always wonder what we’re so afraid of in these situations. Why do we always think we need to know more before we interact with others — many of whom are probably in the same non-expert boat we are?

    So much better to do as you say and let go of the (usually unfounded) fears that people will think less of us if we try to engage. Generally, people are a whole lot more willing to give us a break than we are willing to do for ourselves.

    Melinda Guillemette

  2. smallbizphil said

    Nice post. Good advice – the best experts know very well, and aren’t afraid to share it, when they don’t know.

  3. Debra, this post is great, and so timely for me personally since I’ve been going to a few more networking and learning events than usual lately. I always feel like the “baby” at events (OK, maybe I am) – but that shouldn’t stop me from asking questions or initiating conversations.

    You’re so right: None of us can be experts at everything. My eyes glaze over when people start numbers, but I could easily write a 10- or 20-page paper in college (and could probably still crank a few out!). What makes these events interesting is the different perspectives and experiences everyone brings to the table.

    • Shannon, never forget that age has nothing to do with it. The key to getting respect in any conversation is being engaged and interested and willing to share. We all (including and especially me!) have so much to learn from each other. You are the only YOU there is, and because of that you bring a unique and exciting perspective to any conversation you choose to join. Sometimes the questions you ask are more exciting than any fact you could contribute. This was a tough lesson for me, but now that I’m well into my career, I’m glad I finally figured it out!

  4. Tom Hood said


    Great post and advice is on point. Fact is engaging people through questions is not only good for networking and biz development but key trait in great leaders. I will be covering this in our session in June, but clearly you already have the answer…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: