The Shy Writer’s Cocktail Party Survival Guide

Shy-Girl-300x400Confession: For me, the scariest part of a writer’s conference is the cocktail party. There’s no structure. No speaker. No handouts. Instead, hundreds of people who are used to spending long hours at a keyboard in coffee-stained jammies are let loose into a hotel ball room and left to fend for themselves. There are a few, you can spot them right away, who relish these things. But for many of us, it’s a struggle. Here are some practical tips for tackling those introverted road blocks.

Step 1: Prepare in Advance

  • Google the keynote speakers, the VIP attendees, or anyone in particular you would like to meet at the event. It is amazing what you can learn. Perhaps someone shares your passion for rescue dogs and roller derby;
  • Ask friends who know people you’d like to meet if they’d be willing to set up a pre-event introduction, either online or off;
  • Send an Email to three people you’d like to get to know better, saying “I heard from [mutual friend] that you’re going to be at the SCBWI Summer Conference. I’ve heard so much about you, and I’m really looking forward to meeting you in person. Hope to see you there!”;
  • Enlist a Friend to Go with You;
  • Volunteer to Help with the Event;
  • Go with a Specific Goal in Mind: e.g., I will find a critique partner.

 Step 2: Practice Your Small Talk

As Mr. Darcy laments: “I certainly have not the talent which some people possess, of conversing easily with those I have never seen before.” To which Elizabeth Bennet replies, that it is because you have never taken the trouble of practicing.

  • Here are some questions to help start conversation:
    • “Have you been to many of these events?”
    • “Have you heard Lori Halse Anderson speak before?”
    • Relay something you’ve learned about the speaker from your advance planning.
  • Someone will inevitably ask you about your writing. Be ready with more than the standard, “I’m working on a YA manuscript.” Instead, be prepared with a one sentence hook. So what if the person you’re talking to isn’t an agent or an editor? Maybe that person has an agent and knows that their agent is looking for exactly what you described.

 Step 3: Arrive Early

  • It can be more intimidating to enter an already crowded room than it is awkward to be one of the first few people there;
  • Arriving early also allows you to join the first small conversation group. People are usually relieved to have a new member join in.

Step 4: Take Your Name Tag Seriously

  • The way you present your name says a lot about you. Write your first name in large, bold letters with your last name below;
  • You want people to be able to read your name from a little bit of a distance.
  • On a related note, establish a firm handshake. There are actually short YouTube tutorials on how to perfect this skill. No joke.
  • When you read the name tag for one of the people you emailed in advance, walk up and say, “Jane! It’s so great to finally have a face to put with the name.”

 Step 5: Establish a SafeHarbor

  • If you arrive with a friend, avoid the urge to talk together, alone in the corner. Instead, split up and walk the room in opposite directions with the goal of meeting up on the far side of the room. This way, you can walk the room confidently, knowing there is a safe harbor at the other end.

 Step 6: Ask Questions/ Listen Attentively

  • Focus 100% on the person talking;
  • Keep your body language open (no crossed arms);
  • People love to talk about themselves; ask: “What are you enjoying most about your writing these days?” It’s a more interesting question than “What do you write,” and it leads to a lengthier answer from which a true conversation can arise.

Step 7: Business Cards

  • Some people like to collect business cards, others do not. Regardless, have plenty on hand in case you are asked.
  • Write on the back, e.g.: “Great to meet you at the SCBWI Conference.”
  • If you meet someone you’d like to contact later, request their card. Make a note on the back to help you remember that person.

Step 8: Next Day Follow Up

  • As a general rule, event organizers are underappreciated. Emailing them to say “thank you” will help them remember you.
  • Send an Email to some of the people you enjoyed meeting who may also be a good contact for you. Say something like: “So great to meet you at the SCBWI Conference. It’s so rare that I find another writer who enjoys rescue dogs and roller derby.”

Finally… A Caveat: Avoid walking around the party with a copy of this post, marking off each step as it is accomplished. There’s shy, then there’s just plain awkward. Have fun at your next writers conference!

Credits: Jane Austen, Pride & Prejudice, chapter 31; Diane Darling, The Networking Survival Guide: Practical Advice to Help You Gain Confidence, Approach People, and Get the Success You Want (McGraw-Hill 2nd ed. 2010); Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People (Simon & Schuster reissue ed. 2009); Jane Jackson, The Shy Person’s Guide to Conference Networking (2013),; A Shy Person’s Guide to Networking (2013),

Photo Credit: tainara






About Anne Greenwood Brown

Anne Greenwood Brown (@AnneGBrown) writes MG and YA fiction. She is represented by Jacqueline Flynn of Joelle Delbourgo Associates, and is the author of the LIES BENEATH trilogy (Random House/Delacorte Press). Her new book THE TWISTED LIFE (Albert Whitman & Co.) is anticipated for March 2016.


  1. Ronda Roaring says

    You know, Anne, this is a topic I’ve thought a lot about and even written on. I am not shy, I have a good handshake and keep pretty good eye contact and try to listen well and, yet, I hate cocktail parties/breakout session/schmoozing sessions, whatever you want to call them. They are, in my opinion, a waste of time. And I have come to the conclusion that the fault is not mine or the other attendees but that of the event planners. Attendees should be expected to provide a short bio before the event so that attendees can go through those bios and pick people they specifically want to meet. Another approach, and I don’t feel one approach excludes the other, is to have smaller rooms next to each other where people can float from one room to another with each room being a particular theme. For example, one room could be for people who write picture books, the next could be for YA writers and the next for new adult (or historical fiction, sci-fi, children’s, etc.). I think most event planners say to themselves, “We’ll let everyone schmooze for an hour or two before dinner” and leave it at that. No, this is an important part of the whole conference, and they need to plan it out just like all the other parts. No amount of passing out business cards or questions about the main speaker is going to make for successful schmoozing if the schmoozing part of the conference hasn’t been planned out properly.

    • Anne Greenwood Brown says

      I think these are excellent ideas! You should volunteer to help plan one of these events. You’d probably set an excellent precedent for those to follow, too.

    • says

      If you plan to be at the SCBWI-LA Conference next weekend, be sure to look for the smaller regional gathering which are planned throughout the conference. Writers and illustrators can mingle in these smaller gatherings to get to know other people in their geographical area.

  2. says

    Smile when you meet people. In my daughter’s business class, the teacher has them practice introducing themselves and shaking hands. Two true life skills.

  3. says

    You have some great tips! I avoided the social times at the conference I went too, exactly because I wasn’t sure how to handle it all. I wish I would have read your post before, because I would have been able to network and meet new people much more easily!

  4. says

    Anne and Ronda’s guidance is right on. I’d like to add a point or two that I had to learn the hard way and helped me go from wall flower to being a ‘mix master’:

    * The easiest and best way to schmooze is to focus on the other person. Not a superficial one question to get quickly to talking about yourself and your projects. Really dig in with serial questions, eye contact, active listening. People LOVE to talk about themselves and will brand you as being astute in that you see worth of their lives and work. Once they have exhausted their story, they will be open and eager to hear yours. Give it reluctantly and humbly and you will not be forgotten. This is the core of Dale Carnegie’s revelation of how to win friends and influence people. It works.

    * If you are a dunderhead (like me) who does not capture names easily, have a small notepad in your hand and don’t be embarrassed to use it. Use the hand that does NOT hold a drink. Drink in your room later. This is business.

    * At the end of the chat, fork over your business card with web site and e-mail address and a hearty, ‘I’d love to hear the progress of your projects. Let’s keep in touch.’

    Do these things and watch the magic happen. You will build a following.

  5. says

    Thanks so much for the helpful advice. As an introvert (I believe most writers are) I am terrified of attending events where I have to meet new people. In my day job, networking skills are a must, so I’ve learned the art of making small talk, but it can be intimidating to be in a room with a group of authors. I will read your post before attending my next writer’s conference, but I promise I won’t tape it to my wrist. Thanks again for the sage advice.

  6. says

    Anne, would that I’d had your sound advice before I went to the Writer’s Digest West conference this past fall. Since I am the standard-bearer for how not to proceed at conferences, my post-Pitch Slam cocktail conversation with an attendee took a quick turn from his extolling the virtues of his book into bitter remarks about his ex-wife. When I offered some blandishments about his circumstances he thought I was supporting her side. Better yet, another attendee came up and immediately held forth on the shortcomings of HIS ex-wife.

    I had to flee, which was just as well, because the Manhattans were $18 each. If I’d stuck around to flush out the whole audience’s accounts of wife-baiting with a couple more drinks, I undoubtedly would have been standing on my barstool barking like a dog.

    Sadly, I was a total wuss when it came to introducing myself to any of the luminaries. Our very own Porter Anderson was moderating a panel that had Robert Brewer from F&W Media on it, and though I’d been reading Porter for a while and have had several pieces published in the various F&W pubs, I didn’t step forward and say hi. And though I’ve always enjoyed the splendidly profane Chuck Wendig’s blog, I passed up the chance to say, “Chuck, up yours! Love your stuff!”

    At least at another conference in Tucson, I did get together with Chuck Sambuchino to share some drinks. Well, with us both protectively clutching our swill, there was no sharing, but we did have a couple of chats. I could see that he wanted to bark like a dog at one point, but he suppressed it.

    Thanks to you, I’ll know how to behave at my next conference.

  7. says

    Enjoyed this post. I’ve been to two conferences and have met some great people. In 2012 I was determined to meet Jane Friedman face-to-face. Jane probably doesn’t remember me, but I follow her on FB, get her newsletter and enjoy her wisdom. Claire Cook was another one – love Claire and her books! Had drinks with Hope Clarke before dinner. Next year, I want to meet Chuck S.

    As a complete unknown in writing circles, it is fun to meet those who are deep into the industry. It’s shameful to name drop after attending a conference, but I do it anyway. My friends love me anyway. LOL

  8. says

    Thank you for this, Anne!! I am that person who finds a quiet corner to chat with the family pet at most social gatherings, and sadly, writer conferences don’t generally invite pets. It’s a good thing you have that caveat at the end, because I would have been tempted to print this post and bring it to the next event I attend ;)

  9. says

    Thanks, Anne. Yeah, me, too, Gina. I had already turned the printer on. :)
    I am so uncomfortable at cocktail parties I practically get hives.
    Alex Wilson’s advice is right on. It has helped me be less self-conscious and have a lot more fund when I focus on learning about others.

  10. says

    Thank you, Anne. I’m not particularly shy but I still find conference social gatherings very intimidating. Your suggestions are very helpful. I won’t carry this around in my hand, but it will be hidden away in my tote bag for quick reference. Thanks again :)