Life and business lessons from a summer internship

After reading an article on Entrepreneurial Lessons from Your First Job on Project Eve, I decided to share a little tale of embarrassment from my internship days – and how I’ve learned from it.

When I was an intern as a junior in college, I moved to Washington, DC for a 3-month-long summer internship with Discovery Communications to learn all about the wonderful world of PR. Half way through the internship, a few interns and myself were asked to help staff an after-hours screening of a new educational mini series about the energy sector in which members of Congress and other hill staffers would be attending. We were asked to dress professionally, to smile, to be respectful, and to make a good impression (all of these were major “duh” expectations, right)? We did all of these things – we wore suits, the ladies wore heels, we smiled, and we did everything we were asked to do. This isn’t where we went wrong.

This… is where we went wrong:

Previously to our arrival at the event, the interns were given a heads up that two Congressmen would be attending the screening. As bright-eyed 21-year-old aspiring professionals, we were starstruck before we even knew who these guys were. As someone who had no actual interest in politics at the time, I didn’t recognize either name of the Congressmen on the list, so I was just waiting until someone in a suit with an entourage of people around him or her arrived. In my head, that was my cue that someone of importance had showed up.

Well, much to my dismay, everyone that arrived had showed up in a suit with an entourage of people around them. So this theory went right out the window. My fellow intern and I were assigned to the name badge desk (because that’s what only the best of the best interns get to do…), and we were pretty excited because this meant that we would get to meet everyone that could potentially hire us one day! All we had to do was stand there, ask for a name, smile, and hand out the badges. Piece. Of. Cake.

After handing out several name badges and shaking hands for a few minutes, a man walked up to the counter and looked at us for an awkward amount of time – as if we were supposed to know who he was or something. I smiled, asked for his name so that we could give him his badge, and continued to wait while he looked at me like I was a moron who shouldn’t be allowed to claim myself as PR intern at an event on the hill.

Cue the confusion…

Suddenly, a producer for the show hurried over to the table and shook the man’s hand… “Hello, Congressman! Thank you so much for being here tonight. Come this way.”

(In my defense, he had no entourage).

I actually asked the Congressman what his name was so that we could give him a name badge. I stared at him awkwardly while he didn’t respond. He stared at me awkwardly while he didn’t respond. Everything about this 3 second exchange was awkward and… awkward. And I felt like a huge, unworthy moron for at least three days.

While it wouldn’t have killed the guy to simply state his name and let us know that he’s one of the all-important members of Congress, we still should have been better prepared. We knew that this man was arriving, we knew to be ready for him, and we didn’t even know what the guy looked like. A quick Google search would have prevented this embarrassment, but, hey, that’s what being an intern is all about: making a fool of yourself and learning lessons the hard way.

I wish it stopped there… but the tale continues…

We (the other interns and myself) walked into the screening and took seats in the back of the room. I don’t even recall how long the documentary lasted, but it seemed to be over rather quickly. After the ending credits began to scroll, the lights in the theater came on, and everyone in attendance was invited into the lobby for cocktails and hors d’oeuvres. It was fancy-pants stuff for us rookies. We were told to go mingle with everyone in the room and to introduce ourselves.

A little shy at first, of course being intimidated by all of the professionals in the room, we eventually broke away from our interny comfort zones and began to talk with people. All was going well, until one of the interns began talking to a man in the corner who was standing alone. She asked him what the thought of the show… he said he liked it. (To be completely honest, we were less than riveted by this documentary…). The man said he enjoyed it and thought it went over really well. Turns out, he CREATED the show.

“What did you think of the show?” Of course he was going to say it was great. HE MADE IT! This information, of course, would have been a simple thing to find out had we done a little bit of background research… or asked our managers.

Two Lessons Learned:

  1. Be prepared when you have the chance – there is NO excuse in 2012 to be unprepared when you’ve got the availability to use smart phones and the all-powerful Google!
  2. Never let anyone intimidate you or make you feel inferior – just because someone holds a prestigious title (such as “Congressman”) does not mean that they are not human. Sure, you can respect their position or admire what someone has accomplished, but don’t let them make you feel small or unimportant. They put their pants on the same way in the morning.

What lessons did you learn from your internship days? How are they helping you now? Please share in the comments below!

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