5 Tips for Networking at a Conference

Phil Sexton is the Publisher of Writer’s Digest. Follow him @psexton1 on Twitter.

by Phil Sexton
Publisher, Writer’s Digest

Twice a year, every year, Writer’s Digest hosts two large writing conferences, one in New York City, the other in Los Angeles.  The Los Angeles conference will take place Friday through Sunday, 9/27 – 9/29. This year we’re launching the event with a special day of self publishing education – always guaranteed to be a lot of fun.

But as much as I enjoy the educational sessions, keynotes, editors, and agents, there’s nothing better than spending time networking with my fellow writers. I think that’s particularly important for authors who choose to self publish. We have to educate ourselves about how to make the most of our books, get them in front of readers, and tell the world what we’ve done without wasting time. Sometimes the best way of doing that is to learn from our peers – particularly those who have been through the process a few times and understand what works and what doesn’t. That’s not to suggest you pass up talking to the agent who happens to be standing in line to get coffee. Certainly not. But you definitely want to make a point of chatting up your fellow writers as well.

Here are five tips that I’ve found to help ensure that I make good connections at each conference I go to:

1)      Make a point of introducing yourself to the conference programmer – the person who actually puts the sessions together. Part of building a platform for yourself is presenting yourself as an expert – on the craft of writing, the ins-and-outs of getting published, or the best way to market oneself and one’s work. Speaking at conferences both enhances your reputation in addition to helping you sell some books. Find the conference programmer, thank them for a great conference, tell them your area of specialization, and give them your card. Ask for their card in return. Tell them you’d love to speak at the next conference. Keep in touch and keep showing them that you really are the expert you claim to be. Working the conference circuit is a great way to start making a name for yourself and your books.

2)      Get to each session a few minutes early and start chatting up the people next to you. Given that you’re attending the same session, it means you have at least that much in common and perhaps share the same fears, concerns, or interests. You might be able to work with these people after the session to refine your ideas, bounce them off one another, or start a writing group to explore the issues in more depth.

3)      Most conference speakers are more than happy to talk to attendees outside the forum of their session. Make sure you take advantage of their time. I’m always amazed by the number of attendees who seem to feel that they aren’t allowed to approach the speakers. If they’re not running to teach a different session, introduce yourself and ask any questions that weren’t answered during the presentation (but limit yourself to one or two, so as not to be seen as a pest). Let them know you enjoyed their session, and ask if you might email them with a pitch or follow up question. If they say yes, give them your card and thank them again. Don’t keep them from where they’re trying to go – just be polite, succinct, and friendly. When you follow up via email, let them know that you spoke at the conference and you’re much more likely to get their attention.

4)      Many conferences have cocktail parties or lunches that are open and allow for mingling. Use that time to find speakers, agents, or editors who might be in attendance. If you introduce yourself and they seem open to talking, ask them how they got into the business , where they think publishing is headed, what the future of traditional brick and mortar bookstores is, etc. You don’t want to make the conversation about you and your project unless they ask. Instead, make it about something you both love – books!  They’re much more likely to remember you, and the conversation is more likely to be one they’ll enjoy. That’s the feeling you want them to associate with you. It’s hard to be “on” for an entire conference, so give them some time to relax. More than likely, they’ll eventually get around to asking you about what you’re working on and you’ll find them a much more receptive audience if you didn’t force the subject on them.

5)      Connect with the early risers. Typically a conference program will start at 9:00 in the morning, or thereabouts. Get there 30 minutes early and see who else is fired up to get started. They’re guaranteed to be hopped up on coffee and likely more than willing to share ideas and insights until the doors open. And since it’ll also be less crowded early, you’ll have more time to connect, learn, and get to know one another. Those friends you make in the early morning are the ones you may end up relying on down the road.

I hope to see you in Los Angeles. If you attend, be sure to stop me and say hello (but you know that, right?). And if you’ve not yet signed up, check out the VIP offer available now!

Keep writing,

Phil