Laura’s Big Guide to Conference Networking, or, How To Meet People in Mutually Beneficial Ways Without Feeling Like a Salesman or Wanting to Chew Your Eyes Out

I see a lot of writers stressing about talking with other writers at events. The stereotype, of course, is that writers are writers because they would rather sit in a dark room by themselves than interact with other people. And yes, it’s true, I spend a lot of time with my imaginary friends.

But writers are not only capable of socializing like normal functional humans, it’s essential that they do. Publishing is too big to go alone; you’re going to need to take along some colleagues, for everything from critique partners to comparable marketing to moral support.

I’ve been attending 2-5 conferences a year (except in 2020) for writing and my day job for the last couple of decades. I’ve done a lot of conferences. Here are some things to keep in mind and to try!

Starting Point: Remember, we’re all in that room for the same general purpose.

You already have common ground, something to talk about, and similar goals. I am not going to find myself sitting beside someone whose only interest is NFL fantasy brackets or something equally incomprehensible to me; I know the person next to me likes fiction and making fiction, just like me. You’re not approaching a stranger on public transit, you’re getting to know someone who has already been pre-filtered for you. At conferences, the speed-dating is built into registration—if you both registered, you have something in common! So even before you start, remember these are your people.

Another Starting Point: If you insist on using a label, make sure it’s the right one, and don’t sabotage yourself.

I’m going to step on some toes here, but here we go: There are times that labels are helpful, but using a common internet misunderstanding to excuse unhelpful behavior isn’t one of them.

I see so much online about, “I can’t talk to people, I’m an introvert” or something similar. I had a friend who regularly made excuses of, “You should have known I wouldn’t get back to you about that work question, I’m an introvert.” This is flatly ridiculous.

An introvert is someone who “recharges” with alone time. An extrovert is someone who regains energy by spending time with other people. There are a few more details (an extrovert may have less filter when thinking aloud, etc.) but they’re just details. Those labels have nothing to do with shyness, social skills, public speaking ability, etc. Most of the best conference speakers I’ve known personally for years are introverts. An extrovert can have clinical social anxiety.

So an introvert may need some alone time to reset for the next day (or especially after a conference ends!), but being a introvert does not make you shy or unable to have a conversation with other people. It’s certainly not a label that precludes networking ability.

In fact, being an introvert may even make you better at networking, because you are less interested in general chatter (small talk) for energizing and more interested in specifics.

So if your concern is that networking will be hard because you’re an introvert—congratulations, the armchair psychologists of social media had lied to you, but now that worry is gone. Your concern is not whether you can talk with people, but how to most efficiently recharge after doing so. (More on that below.)

Action Point: Prepare some questions.

I actually like to lampshade this at writers conferences: “This seat’s open! Let me get my bag out of your way, sorry. Hi, I’m Laura. So, obligatory first question, what do you write?”

I have a script, gently satirizing myself and our community and using humor to ease the interaction. (I suppose people who are too serious for self-aware meta humor won’t like it, but they’re probably not going to be my friends anyway.) And this question is one I know the other person can answer, because they’re at a writers conference.

(Yes, I’ve met quite a few non-writers at writers conferences, and this question still worked! Because they answered with another reason they were present and then we riffed on that.)

Other questions in my regular catalog include:

  • What do you do for fun? (not what do you do for a living; that’s a common one but less useful for me)
  • What are you reading right now?
  • What are you working on right now? (Warning, this one can be dangerous, especially with novices who haven’t learned how to elevator pitch yet. I’ve been trapped for 15+ minutes as someone recapped their entire plot paragraph by paragraph, with no polite way to disengage without offending. Use this one after a few other questions—and make sure you’re the person who has an elevator pitch rather than a retelling!)

You get the idea.

Scripts save a lot of energy in not having to re-invent the wheel for every new encounter, and they’re still very flexible when an exchange takes you into an interesting conversation. They also prevent awkward staring silence if you just don’t hit it off. Do not fear scripts! Think of some questions in advance.

Action Point: Know your goals.

So why are you meeting people at the conference?

This is going to be very individual. A new writer might go to a conference hoping to find new friends with similar aspirations and to get some moral support in what is a relatively isolated activity with an extremely delayed gratification of publishing. Another writer might be looking for critique partners. Another might be looking to recruit colleagues for an anthology. Another needs some newsletter swap partners in their sub-genre.

These goals do not influence whether you talk to people—I’m going to invite someone to the empty seat regardless—but it might influence some of the script you prepare. “Oh, I write big fat epic fantasy, too! We’re trying to put together a critique group…”

I know that sounds incredibly obvious, but trust me, it’s far easier than you think to realize later that d’oh, I should have asked him if he’s interested in doing a swap. If you consciously put your goals into your script, then it’s easier to remember.

And if you did realize only later, you can still recover with the business card.

Action Point: Have business cards!

I know, I sound like someone over 30. That’s because I am over 30, and also because business cards still work.

Your card should have:

  • your name
  • your email address (NOT just social media, though you can include them if there’s room and you want to)
  • your website
  • your genre or subgenre (be specific if applicable)
  • a little personal flavor, please

Don’t just put “writer” on your card, however hipster-cool that may have sounded in your head, because that gives nothing to work with when someone pulls that card out later. Was this the person doing a memoir or the paranormal romance? I don’t want to contact them for the wrong thing or admit that I can’t remember, so I just won’t contact them.

Because my cards have my website address, I have been able to use the same ones for years, rather than needing to reprint every time a new social media platform launches or one becomes politicized or is sold or whatever. Social media is too volatile to hang an entire network on; include email and website. Just email if you don’t have a website yet. (And for the love of Ada Lovelace, do check your email.)

Business cards can be cool (mine look like I’m a character in a trading card game), and they can also be extremely affordable, as low as under $10 for 100-500 cards depending on source.

And then when you receive a business card, consider taking a moment to make a note on it. “Contact re epic critique” takes only a couple of seconds to write and will save a lot of time later of wondering why you kept this card among a few dozen others. (Note: I’m speaking here of American conferences, where this is largely okay. It’s not okay to casually write on someone’s card in some cultures, and there you should make alternate notes. Please be aware of your setting!)

In short, business cards are a great way to automate or alleviate much of the mental load of networking. Use them.

Action Point: Build in recovery.

This is probably most key for introverts. You know you need some alone time to recharge, so plan it just as you plan anything else in your conference schedule. You wouldn’t skip mealtime and then complain of being hungry, would you? Well, some people would, but don’t be that guy. ;-)

And remember, introvert/extrovert is a continuum rather than two boxes, and extroverts also need some alone time, if not as much.

I often get a hotel room for myself so I am guaranteed a solitary time block in the evening. If I feel like going out to join others for dinner or a game or whatever, I can–and if I want to go back to my room and do something solitary, I can.

If room-sharing is a financial necessity (and I get that), then make another arrangement for yourself, just as you would plan for alternative meals if skipping expensive restaurants. Is there a park where you can go to walk? I’ve also gone walking in hotel corridors that were not near the hip-happening conference rooms, or used empty meeting spaces to sit and work for a bit. Go outside–it’s not only usually less crowded, it’s also just better for you to have air and light and grass.

Give yourself short breaks during the day. Scheduled session breaks or meal breaks can be used for networking or for a few minutes to yourself.

I also block my calendar for conference recovery time. As much as possible, I don’t take private client sessions on Monday; that’s a day to do solitary administrative work.

The point is, plan ahead for what you know is a need.

Action Point: Make yourself available.

When it’s not your recovery period, be accessible.

If I see someone sitting in the far corner of the room with headphones on, I’ll assume that person is taking a personal moment and isn’t interested in networking at this time. If you put yourself to the side because you need some me time and the corner with headphones is the only place to get it, that’s fine. If you put yourself in the corner regularly and then are disappointed that you’re not making connections, consider putting yourself somewhere else.

Sit next to people. If you’re the first at a table, pull out chairs for others. Put down your phone, take out your earbuds. Make it obvious that you’re approachable. Maybe even look up and make eye contact. (Okay, maybe a step too far for writers.)

Seriously, think of the image you’re presenting. You’re a writer, so you already know about characterization; use that!

What’s your plan?

I hope this gives you some practical points on making connections at your next writers conference. If you have more tips, please add them below! This post was plenty long enough already. ;)

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