Eight years ago, I unexpectedly received an email from a total stranger. Sort of. Her name was Laura Mayes, and while she and I were familiar with each others’ blogs, we’d never actually met or spoken in person.
My family and I were returning to the United States after two years abroad; Laura’s email said that she was happy to hear we were moving to Houston and that we should meet. “I think we’re going to be great friends,” her message read, “and I want to know how I can help you.”
Soon after I arrived stateside, we met at a local coffeehouse. At the time, Laura was a vice president at a local public relations firm. “I don’t like to be in the limelight,” she said then, “but I like being the person behind the person in the limelight. I like helping people shine.”
Laura is now one of my best friends. I’ve always admired the way she connects with people, a skill she’s parlayed from public relations into running Mom 2.0 Summit, one of the most successful social media conferences in the country. And yet, when she recently told me that she considers herself an introvert, my initial reaction wasn’t surprise. And then I was surprised that I wasn’t surprised. Laura is fearless when it comes to engaging people—a trait I wouldn’t necessarily ascribe to an introvert.
We sat down so that I could find out more.
Saturday, December 13th, 2014
KW: I was thinking, before I came here, that the way we met was because you reached out to me, via the blog. You found out I was moving from Trinidad back to the States, and you were like, “let’s have coffee.”
KW: Which is something you would not think an introvert would do.
LHM: That is true.
KW: And yet, when a few months ago, you said, “Oh, I’m an introvert,” that seemed totally reasonable to me. Now that I know you well, I get that. But you don’t present as an introvert.
LHM: No. People are always questioning me when I say I’m an introvert. They think that I’m wrong, they try to tell me how I’m wrong, and all the reasons I’m wrong, and I respond, “I hear you, but no.”
KW: Okay, I know why I think you’re right, but why do you think you’re an introvert?
LHM: Well, I find that I get energy from being alone.
LHM: Always. Always. I could be alone for a year.
KW: You could go to the mountains and write a manifesto.
LHM: I totally could. I’m borderline Manifesto Girl. Okay, not really. I also really like people and a good party. But in the end, it’s just so easy for me to be an introvert—particularly because the Internet makes it easier. You can receive a lot of information and get input from all sorts of people and internally process it without leaving your own home. More importantly, you can control your own intake of that interaction. You can control your side of it and how much you consume, so it’s not like drinking from a firehose, which is often how it feels when I’m in a very large room with a large number of people all coming at you, or a party or …
KW: … or a conference?
LHM: Or a conference!
KW: Which you do for a living! How are you able to put on a conference, as an introvert?
LHM: Well, first, there’s a very large team that puts on the conference. It’s not like me, myself, and I are putting on a conference for 700 people. That would be exhausting. Event production is a team sport. And we have an awesome team putting our conference on every year. So that helps. I work better with a team…which is, again, not typically an introverted thing. But it’s sort of like swim lanes: you’re all swimming together, but you’re in your own swim lane, doing your own thing.
KW: And your team is virtual, right? It’s not like you see each other every day?
LHM: Completely virtual. We’re all over the country. So it works. Everyone just takes care of his or her swim lane, and we meet via Google Hangout once a week—so even my interaction with the team is usually only one hour a week. And then the rest of the time, it’s solitary. I do my entire job via email. I talk on the phone a few times a week, so I’m just responsible for my one part of the conversation.
KW: So, it doesn’t feel like you’re hosting a dinner party all the time.
LHM: Actually, I love dinner parties! But what I love is the working part. I’d rather do all the planning and setting up and washing dishes part. What I love is putting everything together, and setting up a stage, and just bringing awesome people in the room, and letting them all do the talking. Which is exactly what the conference is!
KW: Well, you know, it’s funny that you say that because I remember you saying when I met you, and you were the vice president of the PR company, “I like to be the person who helps other people get on stage.” Like you want them to be visible, and you’re working in the background. And I think that’s such an interesting point. Because I definitely see you as someone who says, “Here I am. My job is to make you shine.”
LHM: Yes. I mean, we just build a stage, and then we get out of the way. My job is planning, decorating, and connecting.
KW: But at these conferences, you’re the one we see. You tend to be the one on stage introducing people. That must be really draining for you!
LHM: It’s incredibly tiring. I like it, but it’s tiring. And at the end of the day, everyone else is like, “Woo-hoo! Let’s go out and do things!” and I’m totally done, asleep by 8 p.m. I am at the space to the end, helping clean up or what needs to be done, and then I am gone. I mean, have you ever seen me at 9 o’clock at the conferences? Because I’m not there. I’m so asleep.
KW: So, tell me what happens after the conference. The conference is usually three or four days. How do you recover?
LHM: I sleep for a week. I come home, and I watch Netflix and Hulu and sleep. It takes me a good week to recover.
See, here’s my thing: I am very comfortable in crazy three-ring circus situations—I’m almost calmer. Crowds don’t freak me out. Being on stage doesn’t freak me out. Both of my parents are extreme extroverts, and I grew up in a house where the kitchen was open all the time and people were flowing through our house. On Thanksgiving, there would be 80 people in our house. And many of them were strangers—people my parents met at the grocery store who mentioned they didn’t have anywhere to go for Thanksgiving, so my parents invited them over to our house.
I grew up in the middle of a lot of people, activity, and action, so I’m very comfortable in that. But I don’t get energy from it. In fact, the opposite. I like being around people, but then I’ve given out all my energy. I’ve been on. When it’s over, I’m like, “Peace out. I have to go stare at a wall.” I have to go re-energize.
I moved from Houston, living in the middle of everything—tons of incredible energy—to my great-grandparents’ house, here in the country, where we’re sitting. And there’s a quiet and a calmness here that is visceral.
KW: So, no regrets for the move at all?
LHM: None. The opposite. I really like bigger cities, so at first I thought I’d just be here for a couple of years redoing this house, but now, I know that I’ll stay in this house for the rest of my life. I feel so connected to this place, and it’s so calm and re-energizing. And my job consists of being really on: “in hair and makeup,” or in a meeting, or in New York, or flying somewhere to speak…or I’m in yoga pants or pajamas in my kitchen, and maybe won’t even talk to anyone for a week at a time. It’s very extreme, and it’s great because this house is really rejuvenating for me to do the “on” stuff.
KW: One of the things that I think people do is mistake “introversion” for “shyness.” Tell me your thoughts on this.
LHM: Absolutely. Or they mistake “introversion” for “social anxiety.”
KW: Right! And you are neither of those.
LHM: I’m not shy, I don’t have any social anxiety—I just want to be quiet sometimes. A conference has a thousand moving parts. It’s a big, creative puzzle you put together. And I love all of that. When I’m doing it, I’m totally in it…and throwing energy around like glitter. But then I hit a wall. And I think being more self-aware and doing self-care through all of this has helped me.
Even when attending other conferences and business meetings or cocktail parties, really knowing that I’m an introvert—knowing this about myself—helps because I can say, “I’m going to schedule some downtime.” Or, “I’m not going to have meetings all day and then also go to dinner with a bunch of people at night.” I know after all-day meetings, I need to go back to my hotel room and do nothing.
KW: So, let me ask this: you run this conference, and by all measures, it’s a successful conference. Do you think your introversion is an asset or a hindrance to somebody who does what you do?
LHM: Oh, it’s totally an asset. A conference is like an iceberg: there’s way more that goes on under the surface that you don’t see, and—if done right—you never know exists. It should look seamless. It should run like a play, or a movie, or a book. You should experience it this way. The preparation is boring, honestly, with a lot of details and color-coded spreadsheets. It’s an introverted job. Actually, a lot of elements of public relations, in general, are introverted jobs. Ninety-seven percent of a conference happens before the conference ever starts.
KW: And of that 97%, what are the things that are particularly suited to an introvert?
LHM: All the planning, reading, researching, emailing, following up. My role in planning my conferences is the content, so all the research, the theme of the conference, the scripts, and storytelling that happens when working with sponsors—there’s a lot of storytelling that goes into it.
My first job out of university was teaching. I was an English major and didn’t know what I wanted to do after graduation, but figured I could teach. So I taught at a private school, and holy wow, teachers are onstage all day long. I hated it. I liked the planning part—planning the curriculum and what I was going to do throughout the year. I liked decorating the room. And I definitely liked the kids, but I hated being on stage all day long. I was spent. I wasn’t good for anything at the end of the day, and the next day, I’d have to get up and do it again.
It’s a totally different thing to be on stage all day long, everyday, than it is to create a stage for people to get up and talk on. For what I do now, the spotlight’s just not on me, you know? And I’m definitely more comfortable that way.