Confession: 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), http://www.rubyconnection.com.au/articles/2013/april/the-shy-persons-guide-to-conference-networking.aspx ; A Shy Person’s Guide to Networking (2013), http://www.interlinkdirectory.com/article/shy-persons-guide-networking/ 
Photo Credit: tainara