Last month, I had the honor of being named one of Glamour magazine’s Top 10 College Women. The award came with all sorts of perks, including a cash prize, a three-day trip to New York, and recognition in the May 2015 issue. (Shameless plug: Go pick up the magazine!)
It was all amazing. But perhaps, the most intimidating and awesome part of the entire experience was getting invited to an intimate dinner with a bunch of impressive women after the awards ceremony.
When I arrived at the dinner, I was surprised to see that there were seating place cards. I was even more surprised to see that I was placed between Dana Perino, former Press Secretary during the Bush administration, and Cindi Leive, the Editor-in-Chief of Glamour. If that wasn’t intimidating enough, New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Weiner was diagonally across from me. Talk about pressure.
A lot of times, when we talk about chatting with important people, it’s usually about giving them our elevator pitch and getting a quick word in. Up until this point, most of my experiences with impressive people have been along those lines—saying “hi” to them at a networking event or asking them a question at a conference. Neither experience could’ve prepared me for speaking to people at the top of their fields, in an intimate setting, for an extended period of time.
So, what did I learn over the course of a two-hour dinner with some of the most powerful and important women in the nation (and even the world)? Enough that I’ve got a couple of pointers for when you find yourself in a similar situation.
1. Treat Them Like Real People
My first thought when seeing that Cindi Leive was eating dinner two seats away from me was to scream, “CINDI LEIVE, YOU ARE MY IDOL” and hug her. Obviously, not the best idea.
While you don’t want to go in the opposite direction and play the “too cool for school” game, try not to spend your time openly fangirling over the person you’re talking to. It’s actually quite uncomfortable to have people gushing over you, and it doesn’t allow for you two to talk as equals. This all sounds really obvious (and no one did this at the dinner I attended), but I’ve heard horror stories about people totally losing it when meeting someone they admire.
If you’re worried about being starstruck, think of it this way: How would you act during any other networking opportunity? You’d probably ask the other person lots of compelling questions, listen, and see what you can learn. For instance, when we first introduced ourselves, Dana Perino commented that it was cool we were all pursuing things we were interested in so early, because her career path looked so different in college. This paved the way for me to ask a natural conversation starter: “Did you ever see yourself doing what you do now back when you were in college?” She then joked about her first college job, and it set the tone for a really great dinner.
Important or famous people shouldn’t be treated any differently. Sticking to what you know really does go a long way.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Get a Little Personal
Talking to important people about their professional lives is already intimidating enough, let alone when they start diving into something personal that doesn’t have anything to do with their career. For instance, among groups of women, talking about careers naturally progresses into a discussion about work-life balance and the challenges that comes with it.
Keep in mind that real relationships are built once you start straying away from simple small talk, so if the other person opens up that opportunity to really connect, don’t shy away from it! If you’re afraid of asking or saying something too personal, you can just listen along and do some nodding. Again, take a page from the Networking 101 playbook: Fake it ’til you make it.
3. Don’t Skip the Follow-Up
After you’ve had the opportunity to talk to someone who’s successful and impressive, you might feel like you’re being a nuisance by following up after the event. Don’t be!
If you have the chance before that person leaves, see if it’s okay for you to follow up (“I’d love for us to chat about this again!”), and if so, ask for the best way to get in touch. For example, during another networking event through Glamour, one of the women I met told me to get in touch with her through Twitter (she spends a whole lot more time on there than she does in her inbox). A little unconventional? Yes. But did I get a response when I tweeted at her the next day? Absolutely. And now we’re meeting up for coffee when I’m in New York next month.
If there’s anything I learned from my experience, it’s not to be intimidated when cool opportunities like this come your way. (Oh, and yes, in case you were wondering, I did feel quite glamorous.)