I almost bailed on my first writing conference. If not for the large sum of non-refundable money I’d paid for my hotel, registration, and train tickets, I would’ve made an excuse not to go. I was terrified. But I’m so glad I found the courage.
Writing conferences are both wonderful and overwhelming. They yank us from our solitary writing desk and drop us into a multi-day exercise in round-the-clock extroversion. They also give us new friends and important professional connections. That is, if we can overcome the social anxiety, imposter syndrome, or whatever else might stand in our way.
Since that first conference, I’ve grown to love them. Knowledge, feedback, and inspiration from conferences has changed the course of my writing life. I’ve also made writer friends from around the globe. And I’ve learned a thing or two about experiencing the event on my own terms.
If you’re headed to a conference, here are some tips to get the most out of it without losing your mind.
Bring business cards.
You need business cards. Period. Even if you’re not published yet. Even if they only have your name and email address on them. There’s no minimum bar of legitimacy to carry writerly business cards.
Business cards give people a way to remember you and connect after the conference. If you want someone else’s contact information, offering them your card at the end of the conversation prompts them to do the same. Business cards don’t need to be fancy or expensive. All you need is something with your name, email address, relevant social media handles, and website (if you have one).
Be yourself — and find others like you.
There are many ways to make new friends at a conference, and not all of them involve staying up late or drinking alcohol.
Don’t let anxiety keep you from social activities, but don’t do things that simply aren’t you, either. Especially if they’ll hurt your participation in the conference. If you can’t function on five hours of sleep, think twice before you join a group headed out on the town when you normally head to bed. Will three glasses of wine make you feel hungover the next day? Switch to club soda with a lime. You paid a lot to attend this conference. After-hours socializing isn’t worth wasting that money and opportunity.
Your willingness to set boundaries may even make you a new friend. Sometimes others feel more comfortable making a healthy choice if they know they’re not alone.
The easiest way to find your people is to use the official conference hashtag. You can also change your Twitter display name to say “[your name]@ [conference name]”. If you want company at breakfast, announce a time and place in advance and see who shows up. Give others a chance to join you for a morning jog. You never know who’s waiting for your invitation!
Ask good questions.
Good questions show conference presenters you’re thinking about the material. They also help folks in the audience who may not have wanted or known to ask the question themselves. Presenters have approached me at conferences to thank me for attending their talk, and I guarantee it’s because I thought of a meaty question to ask at the end. This can provide a great opportunity to make new connections.
Focus on your fellow attendees.
As much as you may want to connect with your dream agent or the famous author delivering the keynote, they’re only one person. Agents, editors, and presenters are humans, too. They get overwhelmed at conferences and hate feeling like they have a target on their backs.
This conference may not give you an in with a powerful industry professional. Don’t try to force it by cornering them in the bathroom or elevator. Instead, try to relax and make as many connections with your fellow attendees as you can. Most writers will gladly help their friends by following on social media, signal boosting publication announcements, and the like. These friendships often start at conferences.
Put your phone down.
Who among us hasn’t pulled out our phone and pretended to read a Very Important Text when we didn’t know what to do or say next? I’m certainly guilty.
However, when you stare at your phone you tell people around you that you have something more interesting to do. If the person in front of you feels socially awkward, too, they may give up on a person who feels disengaged or uninterested.
Force yourself to engage fully in the conference experience. That means putting your phone away and only using it when you need to (e.g. to coordinate meeting up with a group for dinner). Make eye contact and say hello to people when you pass them. Present yourself as someone who’s open and available to conversation.
Stay at the venue if you can.
You can save a lot of money by crashing at a friend’s place or picking a cheaper hotel, but you might get more from an out-of-town conference if you stay at the venue. Many writers are introverted souls who find big events like this incredibly draining. A long commute to and from the conference only adds to the drain, as does feeling socially “on” 24/7 because you’re staying with a friend you seldom visit.
Staying at the venue gives you a private space just an elevator ride away. You’re much more likely to take a short break when you need it if it doesn’t require a commute. Even just knowing it’s available can boost your social stamina.
Don’t be afraid to engage with people after the conference.
After you leave the conference bubble, stack of business cards in hand, it’s easy to let those new relationships wither. We feel awkward poking our heads into others’ online lives and saying “Hi! Remember me?”
Except that’s exactly what you should do. Follow your new connections on social media. Comment on and like their posts. If you promised to send more information about your current project, exchange pages to critique, etc., initiate that email thread. Every relationship requires care and feeding or it will eventually die.
A caveat: don’t overdo it. You don’t need to like or comment on every single tweet or reply to every email newsletter. Don’t send an email if you have nothing useful to say. But do share your authentic responses and communications, just like you would with any other new friend. Ideally, you should interact with these new connections at least once a season.