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The Career Coach: Battling Shyness

The Career Coach takes on a common obstacle in any career -- shyness.

There are a lot of things that can stand in the way of your career. One of the most damaging but easiest to correct is shyness. If you are unable to communicate who you are or what you do, you will not be able to take advantage of opportunities that come to you.

I used to be horribly shy. My mother made a deal with me when I went to college. I had to meet two new people a day. That's a pretty easy goal to reach when you are going to a college where you know absolutely no one. So I agreed to her challenge. It was really easy the first few weeks. Every day that I met two new people was a personal accomplishment. The funny thing was, I started to like trying to meet that goal. I made it my own. I made it into a game. After a few months it became a habit.

After I graduated from college and moved to Los Angeles, I had a new challenge -- to find a job. But I didn't know anyone except those people I went to school with, including my roommate. So I gave myself a goal -- to call two people a day. I had to do it before lunch. My heart pounding, I phoned a woman my aunt had referred me to. I was sweating even though it was not hot. I stammered as I heard the reluctance in her voice but I finally managed to mention my aunt's name.

The woman's defensiveness melted away as she asked about my aunt, who was an old friend. I learned then that connections make a difference -- who you know does matter -- and it isn't bad to use someone's name when you make a call, if you have their permission to do so. At first, I thought I was using people, but that is part of the networking game. Phone calls are still not easy for me, even though they are an essential part of my job and I still have to prepare mentally to do them.

Recognizing Shyness

Shyness pops up at moments of high social pressure. It's called situational shyness. Shy people are excessively self-conscious. About 33% of the population is shy in any social setting.

Here are five ways to overcome timidity that worked for me and they can work for you.

The ABCDE's Of Overcoming/Dealing With Shyness:


rrive early if you are going to a party or meeting. Make it a game at a party or meeting to meet five new people. To join a conversation already in progress, listen in a bit first. When there's a lull, ask a question about the topic being discussed that requires someone to answer you. If after a few minutes, you still feel out of place, move on to another group.


egin a conversation. Say hello and make a remark on your shared environment, even if it's something like, "I'm surprised at how many people came to this meeting. Have you been to one of these before?" If you are at a party, ask how the person knows the host. Throw out questions to see if you can find something in common to discuss: "Do you live in this part of town?" "Did you grow up here?" If not, "How long have you lived here?" Eventually you will find something of mutual interest and begin a real conversation.


oncentrate on the other person. My husband likes to emulate a television host who seems sincerely intrigued by the person he is speaking with, no matter what the topic. This attitude is engaging both to the interviewee as well as the viewers of the show. My husband uses the TV host's technique whenever he meets someone new and learns all kinds of fascinating information. When you focus on the other person, you can't be self-conscious or shy.


on't wait for someone to talk to you. If you find someone who is off by themselves, talk with him or her. Introducing yourself shows the other person that you're interested in getting to know her or him and want her/him to feel comfortable.


vents are a good place to practice overcoming shyness. I discovered that by volunteering, I'm so busy helping out that I don't have a chance to be shy. And, of course, I meet other volunteers and get into the event for free.

Coping With Shyness In Work Situations


During an interview, you are being evaluated and it's hard not to be self-conscious and feel insecure. Preparation is essential, not just to impress the interviewer but also for your own comfort. Be ready to answer open-ended questions such as "Why are you interested in working here?" and prepare a few comments about how your experience fits with the job. Don't wait for the interviewer to draw you out. You have to promote yourself to land the job. This is the time to highlight your accomplishments and skills that are relevant to the job. It may feel like bragging to you, but the interview is the time to toot your own horn.


Start with a simple exercise. At a meeting where you feel reasonably comfortable, (a reading group, volunteer group) ask one question or make one comment. At the next meeting, make a few more remarks. You'll get used to hearing your own voice and start to feel okay.

You might feel intimidated by bosses or co-workers, but try not to exaggerate the power difference. Stay focused on the content of the meeting and what you want to say. If you have a terrific idea, speak up. You'll be surprised when the group welcomes your idea.

Public speaking

Many people fear getting up in front of others and making a presentation. The first time I made a speech to a large group of people, I was pregnant with my daughter and didn't realize I had morning sickness. My husband almost gave the speech for me, since I was so ill. I was so nervous about being sick in front of the audience I was not afraid of the audience itself.

To combat fear, read your speech out loud to family or friends several times before you speak to an audience. Think about what information you want to impart. The audience wants to learn from you. If you begin to stammer or freeze, stop, breathe deeply and then continue. Remember, the audience wants to hear what you have to share. I try to meet someone in the audience before giving a speech and concentrate on that person. I forget about myself as I talk, focusing on communicating with that person I met.

As hard as it may be, try to speak in public whenever you have a chance -- even if it's just to offer an idea at a parent association meeting or a toast at a friend's dinner party.


I can't say I am cured of my shyness, but I have learned to cope with it. Many people would be surprised to learn that I suffer from shyness at times. At parties for my child's school, I still feel intimidated by some of the other parents, but this is when I feel self-conscious. As soon as I start focusing on the other person, my shyness melts away as I try to learn about them. I keep working at my shyness everyday and am coping with it.

This month, you have an opportunity to meet many people who share a common interest with you at the SIGGRAPH conference in Los Angeles. Strike up a conversation with the person standing next to you in the registration line, or sitting next to you at a presentation. Find out where they are from, if they have attended the conference before, and if it's not the very first day, what they have seen so far and liked the most. Set a goal to meet at least five people a day during the conference. You can do it! And you can overcome your shyness too.

Career Coach/Recruiter Pamela Kleibrink Thompson will be presenting "Resumes and Demo Reels: If Yours Aren't Working, Neither are You!" at SIGGRAPH on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2004 from 9:00-10:30 am in Room 511AB. She speaks regularly on career issues at colleges and universities.


One organization that can help with public speaking is Toastmasters International.

The SIGGRAPH conference is coming to Los Angeles this year.

Pamela Kleibrink Thompson is a recruiter, career coach and management consultant. She produced the world-famous Career Boot Camp for computer animation and is a frequent speaker at trade shows and seminars. Her clients include Toy Box, World of Tomorrow, Disney, Fox, Simex Digital Studios, Lucas Learning and Digital Domain.