The Virgin Group founder explains how to overcome the nerves in order to become a fluent networker and a highly effective entrepreneur...
"When you’re starting up a business, you have to pitch to investors and connect with potential customers at every opportunity. If you’re struggling with shyness, that’s certainly an obstacle, but there are a number of ways of dealing with it," writes Richard Branson in a recent blog post.
"I can tell you from experience that shyness is a problem that can be overcome. It just takes practice. Years ago, when organisations first started inviting me to give talks, I was very nervous onstage and did a terrible job of getting my points across. But I persevered, and it paid off. While I can sometimes feel a bit daunted before I speak in front of a crowded room, it doesn’t keep me up at night anymore."
Practice makes perfect
Branson can consider himself somewhat of an authority on the subject, having been quiet a shy child he was forced to embrace public speaking and meeting strangers as he started up his first venture.
"If you’re an introvert and find it difficult to communicate with strangers, then you have to practice, practice and practice – but practice being yourself. When you’re first starting out, no one expects you to be a commanding leader or a world-class orator. You simply need to convey a sense of passion for what you’re doing, and they’ll be hooked.
"When I was a teenager, a few years before my friends and I had chosen the name Virgin for our company, we started up a magazine called Student. We had to spend a lot of time making phone calls in order to secure advertising and interviews – an area where we had no experience in. We were keen to come across as knowledgeable and trustworthy, and since we didn’t feel comfortable being ourselves, we’d go to great lengths to try to pretend that we did.
"I would speak in a deep voice and give myself a made-up title to try to impress whoever was on the other line – at various times I was a marketing director, editor, reporter, chief financial officer and head of sponsorship. It did work from time to time, but pretending to be someone you’re not isn’t a good idea, since you eventually have to reveal who you are."
Prioritise face to face meetings over all else
One point Branson is keen to make is the enduring relevance of face to face meetings, there is still no substitute for in-person relationship building in business. While it may seem easier and less nerve-wracking to conduct meetings over the phone or by email, it will be to the detriment of your business and personal development in the long run.
"Keep in mind that face-to-face meetings are extremely valuable. The amount of communicating we do through our smartphones can make it tempting to shy away from meeting in real life, but many of Virgin’s best ideas for new businesses – and for disruptive innovations in our current ones – have come from leaders getting out from behind their desks and chatting directly with staff and customers, learning from them and building trust. That’s the true gift of technology: It doesn’t replace physical connections, but empowers us to go make more of them.
"Of course, for some introverts, face-to-face meetings might spark deep fears, but facing your fears is a huge part of entrepreneurship. You’re going to be forced to solve many problems as you get your business off the ground – whether they involve putting yourself out there to pitch and network, or dealing with later financial worries, or even letting go of some control when you delegate responsibilities. Your shyness is just the first of many challenges to overcome. Interestingly, people who are not shy often make the mistake of sounding almost too cocky, whereas a shy person can come across as more genuine. So don’t give it all up in training!"