Monday, June 6, 2011

Networking Magic at Conferences

Marriott Marquee-Location for RWA National 2011

I can tell the RWA National Conference is coming up (June 28-July 1) by looking around my office. I've begun sorting clothes for the trip. I hate waiting until the last minute. I'm also going out of town before the conference, so I'm packing for two trips. Anyone else started packing yet? Or am I the only crazy one?

If you have started packing, have you also thought about how you plan to network? Are you pitching your manuscript to an editor/agent? Do you have your pitch down? How about an elevator pitch so it'll roll off the tongue? How are your social skills? Most writers are introverts, including me, but I'm getting better. I even took a class recently with Jonathan Maberry and Keith Strunk called Act Like a Writer which used acting techniques to improve communication skills. It was tough and painful at times but well worth it.

A writing conference offers one of the best places for networking with business professionals, colleagues and friends. But have you found yourself tongue tied at an editor/agent pitch, or trying to speak to a group of people only to find your witty humor has missed the connecting flight?

To be most effective, you must sharpen those communication skills and avoid a few bad habits. People form impressions within the first 10 minutes, or less, of speaking with you. How do you gracefully start up a conversation with a stranger? When there are hundreds of attendees at the larger conferences like RWA National and Romantic Times, the eyes can glaze over and the urge to go find a corner to hide in is overwhelming.

First of all, take a breath. Don’t overload your brain with everything that’s happening in the room. Focus on the immediate six–foot circle around you. Think before you speak and always remind yourself, “Am I behaving in a manner that will make a good impression?”

3 Rules for Successful Communication:

  1. Listen – without interrupting the other person.
  2. Question– the person for more information on the topic.
  3. Encourage– more discussion including other ideas, future plans or goals.
Ways to Improve Communication:

Reveal some confession. “This is my first national conference and I feel overwhelmed.” “In my pitch session, I was so nervous I couldn’t remember the names of my characters.” A good icebreaker.

 Weave pauses into your speech. Don’t try to convey all the information on your topic in one breath. Give the other person an opportunity to absorb and interject comments.

Smile! You’ll be more approachable. Other body language applies here–stand tall, dress professionally and make eye contact with people you are speaking to.

Compliment people, but be sincere. Introduce yourself to others. If someone pays you a compliment use that as an opening for a conversation starter.


 Be warm and considerate. Respect people’s privacy and opinions. Gossiping about and badmouthing other people can too easily be overheard, even in your room, on an elevator. DON’T DO IT!

 Be Positive. To give a positive impression, speak and act positive.

 Be empathetic. If you spend your time trying to understand someone’s point of view rather than convincing her of yours, you’ll build your image.

Behavior to Avoid:

Sarcasm. Making spontaneous sarcastic remarks even if you don’t intend to hurt anyone has a negative impact on people’s impression of you.

Interrupting. Interrupting a speaker can create a less than favorable impression for you, if not cause tension and anger. If you catch yourself doing it, stop and apologize. If you’re not sure if the person is finished, politely ask, “Are you finished?”

Ignoring people. If you don’t take time to say hello, or stop to listen to another’s ideas or good news, others will not want to deal with you in the future. Our lives are so busy and rushed and it’s easy to forget to pay attention to our actions. But people remember rude–and courteous–behavior.  

Being halfway there. When you are speaking to someone, don’t scan the hundreds of conference attendees behind her looking for other friends or favorite authors. (See ignoring people). Or explain by saying, “I’m trying to find so and so, please excuse my rudeness.”

Hogging the conversation. It’s not all about you. Even if you think it is. Give others a chance to talk. (See Interrupting.)

Offering unsolicited Advice. Don’t do it. Try this on a friend: “Hi Jane, want some advice?” Watch her face tighten.

Giving insincere compliments. Politeness and courtesy can be overdone especially in insincere compliments. On the other hand, don’t criticize people in public.

10 Ways to Start a Conversation with Strangers at Conferences:

 Starting a conversation with strangers is difficult because you don’t know their interests. At conferences, you have a common point of interest—books.

  1. Comment about the conference, keynote speaker, awards ceremony, etc.
  2. Ask where the other person is from, or other background information.
  3. Pay a compliment, a sincere and honest one, of course.
  4. Ask if he or she is a writer, and if so, what does he or she write.
  5. Ask for advice. “Should I wear the jacket or not?” “Is this pitch line better than that one?”
  6. Ask for help. “Where’s the goodie room?”
  7. Ask for an opinion. People love to give their opinion.
  8. Ask, “Have you attended any good workshops so far?”
  9. Ask for the best way to get around town, points of interest, local restaurants, etc.
  10. Recommend any good craft books? Workshops? Read a great book lately?
There really are no magic tricks to successful networking, maybe a little luck. If you want to leave a positive lasting impression and make the most of your time at a writers conference, develop good conversational skills.

What do you hope to accomplish at your next conference and please share any tips, experiences or horror stories. We all can learn from good and bad experiences.


Anonymous said...

Wish I could be there this year, but I can't travel at this point.
Have lots of fun!


Anonymous said...

Kathy, thank you so much for this information. This will be my first national and the tips will help.

Dr. Debra Holland said...

Nationals is an easy place to network. Lots of lines and milling around. :) The easiest question to ask is, "What are you writing?" That always starts a conversation.

Gabriella Hewitt said...

Good information particularly for people who have a hard time talking to strangers.

I've never been to Nationals. I'm hoping maybe to make it next year. Have a great time and I hope your networking is a success! ( :

Kinley Baker said...

Thanks Kathy! Can I write those 10 points on the back of my hand? :-) I'm so shy in person, but I can usually start conversations with people who love books. I appreciate the tips. Have a great time at Nationals! I am setting aside clothes for packing already.

Kathy Kulig said...

Amber, I wish you could go. Hope you'll be able to travel soon.

Anonymous, So glad the info helped. And you'll enjoy your first National. Stop by and say Hi.

Kathy Kulig said...

Debra, That's so true about lines and waiting great networking ops. I remember standing in a lunch line next to an agent and she asked what I write. I had newbie flashing across my forehead by the time I got anything out. I'm much better now. :)

Thanks Gabriella, I hope you'll make it one year. Nationals is an exciting conference. But there are many smaller, local conferences that are worth going to as well.

Kathy Kulig said...

Kinley, LOL. I'm shy too, but I've made a conscious effort get over the shyness and be socialable and professional during these events. My career depends on it. :) Barbara Vey from Publisher's Weekly always introduces herself by name even though everyone knows her.

Cool! Another early packer. Say hello, if you see me at the con.

Anonymous said...

Great tips, Kath! Love the photo, too. I wish I was going to NY with you. I'm not typically shy, but I get tongue-tied around my favorite authors. I sat at a table once with R.L. Stine (my kiddos read his books) and I said, "You're R.L. Stine!" well, duh. lol