This post is from staff writer April Dykman.

Before I became a full-time freelancer, I worked in the communications department at a large non-profit.

The organization hosted several events every year, from small local workshops to huge statewide conferences, and we always needed to fill some holes in the event schedule.

This was never easy. Many times it was on my department to come up with extra presentations. That meant that my three bosses always had to present, which involved a lot of work and travel.

The presenters didn’t have to be managers, though. Anyone could’ve done it. But for the most part, no one ever volunteered. We were writers, editors and designers, and we all seemed to prefer to hide out in our cubicles. When a boss asked for volunteers, we’d avoid making eye contact until the uncomfortable moment of silence had passed.

No one wants to put themselves out there

We didn’t have to step up and put ourselves in an uncomfortable position, so we didn’t. As long as we kept a low profile, we were safe until the next request for speakers…

Or were we?

I was avoiding a nerve-racking situation and getting to stay inside my warm and fuzzy comfort zone, but that actually came at a cost.

First, my bosses couldn’t have seen me as much of a leader. I was just one of the nervous herd. That might not seem like a huge deal, until you want to move up the ladder or need a glowing recommendation letter, that is.

And second, I was missing out on a big opportunity to beef up my resume and to learn and practice a new skill. And when we avoid making presentations or decide to skip a networking event, who knows how much we’re losing in terms of valuable relationships and future income? Whether you avoid these activities altogether or you seldom do them (and therefore probably do them poorly), there’s no telling how much that costs you over a lifetime.

That’s not an earth-shattering revelation. We all know that relationships and exposure are important. So if we know how important a cold call or networking event can be, why do we do everything we can to avoid them?

Why we don’t seize opportunities

There are a few reasons why we don’t put ourselves out there more, even though we know we should.

First, we’re, like, engineered to avoid pain. I think that’s a direct quote from an evolutionary scientist.

But in all seriousness, these activities are really uncomfortable. Standing up in front of a room of 50 people and speaking to them? Walking into a networking event where you won’t know anybody? Picking up the phone and calling a stranger?

Just thinking about those situations makes me want to crawl under the covers!

But why is it so terrifying?

“We’re afraid we’ll fail, and that makes us conservative,” says Joe Apfelbaum, the CEO and cofounder of Internet marketing company Ajax Union. “We’re afraid we’ll be mocked, laughed at, or that people won’t agree. But ‘safe’ is not where you make money.”

The other reason that we don’t put ourselves out there more often is that we undervalue how much we stand to gain. “Oh, it’s only one networking event,” we think. “What does it matter if I skip it?”

It might matter a lot.

Apfelbaum recalls one networking event he wanted to skip. “I wasn’t in the mood, and the people who would attend weren’t really the type of people I network with,” he says. But he decided to make the best of it, and one of the attendees became a customer. And it turns out, that that new customer has an investor partner who wants Apfelbaum to handle marketing for every company in his portfolio.

Of course wild success stories like that are great, but what do you do if you’re scared to show up to the event in the first place?

Try saying, “yes, and…”

Last summer I took a 6-week improv class. That was a big stretch for me, to not be able to hide from the spotlight. To be forced to fail on purpose. A couple of times I thought my overtaxed perfectionist brain might explode. Fail? On purpose?!

But one of the best things I learned was the “yes, and…” approach. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s a cardinal rule of improv theater to agree with what your fellow actors say (“yes”) and then to add to it (“and…”).

That’s because you want to avoid a scene like this:

Person 1: I am a T-Rex! RAWR!

Person 2: No you’re not. The T-Rex is extinct.

Person 2 rejected what Person 1 said, and the energy dropped. Instead, if you accept what’s being said and build on it, the scene works a lot better:

Person 1: I am a T-Rex! RAWR!

Person 2: Yes, and that’s an asteroid hurtling toward us!

I don’t mention this improv tactic to convince you to sign up for improv. I mention it because “yes, and…” isn’t just for improv. It’s for real life, too. Imagine if I had used it at my old job:

Boss: “Is anyone willing to give a presentation at our summer leadership conference?”

Parallel-Universe April: “Yes, I’ll give a presentation, and here are three ideas for topics…”

Boss: “My hero! Take the rest of the day off!” *high fives*

Had I taken that approach, I would’ve had many opportunities to practice and improve, gaining skills that would make me more valuable both then and in the future.

I could’ve honed my skills even more by joining the public speaking group Toastmasters, which met right at my office. One of my bosses was a member.

I could’ve been a problem-solver for my boss — someone who enthusiastically took work off her plate.

Pretty powerful. But wait, there’s more…

How to get more confident saying, “yes, and…”

Apfelbaum says he “had butterflies the first dozen times” he gave a presentation. “I was an expert in online marketing, but I was still scared to death,” he says. But nowadays he’s a speaker, a Google trainer, and the founder of the weekly web series GrowTime.

So I wanted to know how he did it. How did he go from a timid “yes” to an enthusiastic “yes, and…”?

Mostly, he practiced and practiced. And as he got better, he became more confident. Here are five tips and tricks he learned along the way:

  1. Start with people you know. “Everyone should know what you do,” he says, including friends, family members and business contacts. “If you’re looking for a job and no one knows what you’re good at, they can’t recommend you.”

  2. Read, read, read. “Books are such a great resource,” he says, “and they spark new ideas.” So Apfelbaum read everything he could on public speaking, networking and cold calling. (He found books by Zig Ziglar and Brian Tracey particularly helpful.)

  3. Don’t take it personally. “When you cold call and get shut down or people ignore you at a networking event, they aren’t rejecting you, they’re actually rejecting your process,” he says. For instance, “at my first networking event, I approached a woman to introduce myself, and she basically ignored me,” he says. Later he learned that he could’ve avoided that awkward moment if he had known what her body language was saying. “She was facing the other way when I approached, and she needed to be facing me for my introduction to go better,” he says.”If your process is bad, you’re going to get rejected a lot.”

  4. Study yourself and others. The better you get at networking or speaking, the more confident you’ll feel. For instance, when it comes to making presentations, “watch other speakers,” says Apfelbaum. And pay attention to your own habits, too. “I realized that I was using the word ‘basically’ over and over,” he says.

  5. Stay in touch. So many times we make a great connection with someone, and then their business card gets lost under the seat of the car. Instead, immediately after you meet someone “connect with them on LinkedIn and send a thank-you email,” he says.

“The top sales writers say that if you’re out of sight, you’re out of mind,” says Apfelbaum. “And I put my own twist on that: If you’re out of sight, you’re out of your mind.”

When he puts it like that, I realize that I do need to get out there more, to learn about networking events in my area and make more connections. “Yes, I’ll attend that event, and I’ll introduce myself to at least three attendees!” Baby steps, people.

How about you? What’s one way you can use the “yes, and…” this month to boost your career?

You can follow Joe Apfelbaum on Twitter. He has written a (free with sign-up) ebook on networking.

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