I am just back from my 5th North American Historical Novel Society Conference. Yep, I am a conference veteran with all the swagger that entails—or rather deliberately WITHOUT swagger (confidence = good, swagger = counterproductive). And, while I am still thinking conference, I thought I would share my quick-and-dirty strategies for getting the most out of such professional events.
Eventually (and I would argue sooner is preferable to later) every writer will attend a professional conference. For some reason, this prospect seems to engender a certain amount of angst in the heart of word-smith types. Perhaps it is because what we do day-to-day is rather solitary. Perhaps it is because we’ve come to think of our writing as art, or hobby. But once you put a professional conference in the right frame of reference things become a lot easier. Professional conferences are BUSINESS events first and foremost. By treating them as such you are likely to get the most out of them with the least amount “oh my god what should I do/say/wear” anxiety.
Here are my bullet point tips for conference attendance:
- Remember you are attending this event with career goals in mind. Depending on where you are in that career those goals may vary. I attended my first conference before I had a completed manuscript and I was there primarily to learn as much as I could about the “B”usiness end of publishing. I attended this last conference as a published author with totally different goals. Know what you personally want to achieve going into the event. Not generally, specifically. Make yourself a list of goals. If you do this then planning which sessions to attend and even decisions that need to be made on the fly once you arrive will be made infinitely easier.
- Do the prep, seriously. I don’t just mean the research to make sure you are attending a conference that is right for you (right genre, right stage of career, etc). Make certain you’ve made a list of the panels you are most interested in seeing, the fellow attendees you are most interested in meeting. Have the supporting materials you plan to take with you—business cards being the most obvious—ready to go. If you are going to meet someone for cocktails, breakfast, a night cap (all useful), get that on your schedule before you even get on the plane if at all possible. Chaos happens at conferences and while serendipitous opportunities to connect are awesome and should be capitalized upon, you do NOT want to snub someone who you’ve planned to meet up with just because you haven’t got a plan.
- Networking begins long before you arrive at your conference destination and remains vital while there. Please tell me you are already networking inside your genre—following folks on Twitter who share your market niche, friends with people on Facebook, etc. If you are not, now, pre-conference is the time to start. Many conferences have Facebook pages and/or Twitter hashtags, allowing you to begin meeting your fellow participants early. At the last HNS conference we used a hashtag in the lead-up to the event and then quite a number of us live-tweeted from the conference using that tag. This allowed us to spread the reach of the conference to those unable to attend, and allowed us to network with a larger circle than the 300+ people who actually came down to Florida. Seriously consider sharing the wealth of information and experiences you are gaining at your conference by actively posting to social media while you are at the event.
- It’s ALL business, even when it seems like it is not. Yes, there will be social occasions—cocktail parties, meet-and-mingle moments, and you should by all means enjoy yourself and see your friends, but one of the chief reasons to attend a conference is professional networking. If you just stand in the corner and talk to someone you already know from AQConnect or your critique group you are wasting precious opportunities. Work the room and while you do remember—
- It is NOT about you. I know, you spent good money to fly to wherever you are (and on those business cards tucked neatly into the back of your name tag) and you are there to advance your writing, but that doesn’t mean the best way to proceed is to self-promote. Talk about yourself all the time and you seem like a narcissistic twit. Seriously, this is the in-person equivalent of that misguided author who is constantly on social media shouting, “Buy my book.” Listen to people. Ask intelligent questions. What is the person standing opposite you working on currently? Have you read his/her book? Tell them what you liked about it. Find connections and similarities between yourself and whoever is standing in front of you and build a bridge. In other words, having a meaningful conversation is not only your best bet for enjoyably passing the time, it is darn good branding as well. I remember people who were interesting and engaging, people who I had genuine discussions with.
Oh and to the extent you are following my advice and using social networking to keep those outside of the event “in the loop” this same rule applies. Post pictures of other people and not just yourself. Quote panelists. Be a fan, and talk about meeting some of the writers you admire. Do not start every tweet and Facebook post with “I.”
- When you don’t know what to do, say, wear, etc., ask yourself, “What’s the most professional option?” Do you have a day-job? Most of us still do. In your other incarnation—mine was big-law-firm attorney—you know darn well how to dress, talk, and behave, for professional success. You would never get falling-down drunk at an event related to that job (at least I hope you wouldn’t). Well, writing is your other job. Behave accordingly. Sure you might be able to get away with that off-color comment, or super-short skirt and I know we are a society of “Go big or go home,” but you want to be memorable in a GOOD way, not in a “Note to self, avoid Sophie at the next conference” way.
- Do not sweat the small stuff. Forget someone’s name ten minutes after you’ve met them? So what—I can’t remember my kids' names half the time. Make a joke of it or apologize without seeming like you are overreacting. What to wear? This seems to be huge for a lot of people. Why, I cannot say. I mean this is not prom (or any part of high school, thank god) the outfits aren’t the main point. You do not need to change multiple times a day (unless you like to and then follow your zen). Just pick some professional outfits (see last point) and zip the suitcase shut.
- Cool, calm and relaxed—you can manage it, really you can. Relax. Not only will you have more fun and retain more of what you hear (though taking notes is good), you will project the sort of image that makes it clear you are a seriously player in this writing game.
|Networking—the most fun you can have at a conference|
if you do it right.
Sophie Perinot is currently holed up in a corner of the 16th century working to finish her next novel. Her first novel, The Sister Queens, was published by NAL/Penguin in 2012 and is on sale in bookstores (brick and mortar and virtual) everywhere. Learn more about TSQ here.