Nice to meet you
An introduction to introductions
Hello! I’m Mary Flannery, a writer and medievalist at the University of Bern in Switzerland. I’m currently leading a team research project on obscenity in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.
That wasn’t so hard, was it? But I have a confession to make: I hate introducing myself. When I have to do it, I often feel flustered. Afterwards, I replay the moment in my head. Was I too talkative? I wish I’d been funnier! I wish I sounded smarter!
I doubt I’m the only one who gets anxious when I have to introduce myself. But over the years, I’ve stumbled across some strategies that make it easier.
A lot of the time I know when and where I might need to introduce myself to someone else (e.g. at a conference, or at a meeting with new colleagues). These are some of the strategies that help keep my anxiety under control.
Do your research
I’m not saying you go full stalker mode, but it helps to know a little about the people you’ll be meeting and the context in which you’ll be meeting them. What might people expect you to say about yourself? How will other people probably be introducing themselves? A little research can go a long way towards reducing the fear factor of introductions. (Bonus: if there’s someone I particularly want to meet, background research helps me put my best foot forward.)
What do you want other people to know about you? This often varies from one context to another, but it helps to reflect on what kind of information will help you best connect with the person you’re introducing yourself to, whether it’s where you live, where you work, who you work with, what you work on, or what brought you to the event in question.
Rehearse (why not?)
Maybe it sounds goofy, but it doesn’t hurt to practice introducing yourself out loud on your own once or twice. It helps you get used to the sound of your own voice, and can help you notice when certain words are likely to trip you up. (Practising aloud is what helped me realise that the word ‘femininity’ was too tongue-twisty to use when talking about my research….)
How to Approach People
Still a bit anxious about introducing yourself? Relax! There’s more than one way to do it.
On your own
If you’re feeling particularly confident, you can absolutely approach people on your own, whether you’re at a meeting, a conference, or a reception, or in the coffee corner at the same time as your idol. A big pro that comes with this approach: you don’t have to share their attention with anyone else! Of course, for some people or situations that can feel a bit awkward, in which case…
Grab a buddy, a colleague, or someone else who wants to introduce themselves to the same person you do! This approach takes some of the pressure off, means there’s backup if one of you freezes, and makes it harder to ignore you (the latter is especially helpful if there’s a queue of people waiting to meet the same person).
Get someone else to introduce you
Still nervous? No problem! If someone else introduces you, they have to come up with what to say! If you’re a doctoral student or a junior colleague, then frankly this is something your supervisors or mentors should be doing for you already. But just in case it’s slipped their minds, you should feel free to ask them to use their experience and their networks to introduce you to people they know! I did this at a party thrown by a literary journal where I knew only one or two people who knew a lot more of the other attendees—asking them to introduce me was a wonderfully efficient and relaxed way to get to know the people I wanted to meet!
For those times when it’s just too scary to introduce yourself in person, or when you never get the opportunity, there’s always email. It gives you the space to say what you want to say, a direct path to the person you’re introducing yourself to, and a bit more control over the moment. After all, you can always save a draft of your email and check it over later before hitting SEND.
What to say
So now you’re in front of someone, getting psyched up to introduce yourself. What now???
Think in bullet points (your name + X)
This is where ‘Know thyself’ pays off: what are the absolutely key things you want people to know about you when you introduce yourself? The first thing should be your name, but then you want to give people a little bit of helpful context: ‘I’m Mary—I work with Amy’; ‘I’m Mary Flannery—I work at the University of Bern’; ‘I’m Mary Flannery—I’m leading the obscenity project’ (that last one usually gets people’s attention!).
Pay a (genuine!) compliment
Did you enjoy the talk the other person just gave, or the essay they just published? Go ahead and say so!
I’ll never forget the time I totally froze up after introducing myself to a super eminent professor. She asked a polite question or two about my research, I answered, and then I just…dried up. I had nothing left. Working up the nerve to introduce myself had absolutely drained me of any knowledge I might have had about how to carry on a conversation. So! If you worry that, like me, you might forget how to talk to another human being, try a question: ‘What are you working on right now?’ ‘Are you planning on publishing that talk?’ ‘Is it part of a larger project?’
Make a clean exit
Both of you probably have other places to be, so once you’ve had a pleasant exchange with the person you’ve just introduced yourself to, find a polite way to excuse yourself: ‘It was lovely to meet you’; ‘Thank you again for the talk, it was great’; ‘I look forward to seeing you in the next session’. And then get outta there.
But wait! There’s more!
Follow up, if necessary
Did you promise to send over an article (or did they)? Did you say you’d be in touch about something (or did they)? A short follow-up email can help finish the good work your introduction started. A simple ‘It was lovely to meet you’ followed by ‘Here’s the article I mentioned’ or ‘I look forward to hearing from you about that event you mentioned’ is all it takes.
Try not to overanalyse
Try to remember that everyone is human. Everyone has bad days, and anyone can be prone to shyness or using the wrong word, or whatever—and that includes the person you’re introducing yourself to! So if you feel like the interaction was awkward, or worry you said the wrong thing, try to cut yourself—and them—a bit of slack. Unless they were total jerks to you, in which case they don’t deserve to know you. But most people won’t be jerks; they’ll just be…people.
Remember there isn’t only one way to do this!
Everyone has their own comfort zones, skills, and anxieties. The important thing is to figure out what approach works for you.
Sadly, I haven’t yet reached the stage of my life where I need no introduction. So until that wonderful day, don’t be surprised if I ask you to introduce me to someone I really want to meet.