Thursday, February 12, 2015

Conferences and Cons: A Few Tips and Tricks

I love networking. A lot of people are scared of the word, but I’m convinced they’re thinking about it the wrong way. Networking’s not about schmoozing and talking people up: it’s about making friends, forming connections and long-term relationships, the same sort of things we do in our daily lives.

A lot of this networking I do happens at conferences and conventions. I don’t go just to network. I also go to relax, socialize and have fun. Some people go to the theatre or ball games - I go to cons. But conventions and conferences are great places to be among fellow creatives and learn about the industry. If you’re thinking about attending a convention or conference soon, it helps to be prepared. Here are a few tips to help you make the most out of the experience.

1. Want to attend your very first conference ever? Try looking for one close to home first.

 Travel can be expensive. Gas, plane or train tickets, plus lodging? It adds up quickly, and can add unnecessary stress on a brand new experience. These days, there are plenty of conventions, conferences and festivals all over the country. You might be far away from higher profile events, but chances are there’s something close to home to get your feet wet. Take a look around, do a bit of research, see if there’s anything nearby that suits your needs. 

2. Get familiar with the schedule beforehand.

 Most cons have a ton of sessions and panels for you to choose from, and it’s good to go in with a game plan. Cons and conferences typically post the schedule online so you can get a sense of what they have to offer. These days, many also provide apps that you can download to your phone and keep track of your own personal schedule. Pack a bottle of water and a few snacks. Hopefully you’ll be able to get away and have a real meal, but if not, or if you get peckish during a session, a few light snacks can be a lifesaver. And also a money saver--hotel food often comes with high markups. Why spend $5 on a bottle of water when you can bring your own?

3. Business cards! HAVE THEM.

I recommend business cards for writers and artists both. You never know who you’re going to meet and fall in love with at a conference and desperately want to get in touch with afterward! Sure, you could write their info down in a notebook, but business cards are just so handy. They’re not hard to design (some printers provide easy-to-use templates) and they don’t have to cost a lot. My favorite vendors are GotPrint and Overnight Prints - both are cheap and produce decent quality cards.

A few thoughts:
  • Make the back matte (not glossy) so that people can write on it if they need to.
  • When you receive cards, jot down a little note of when and where you got it. Makes it easier to remember the person who gave it to you!
  • KEEP THEM WITH YOU ALWAYS. I’m a networking veteran and I still make the mistake of leaving my business cards as I head to the restroom or to grab a quick bite to eat, because I’m on a mission, of course I’m not planning on talking to anybody! But inevitably I do (especially at writing confs, writers are chatty!) and I mentally kick myself for underestimating my social prowess. Don’t be like me, just keep your business cards with you! Keep them in your purse, your pocket, your badge holder, wherever’s convenient, but keep them close at all times!
4. Artist? Yes, you should take your portfolio.

 I mean, it’s not a requirement, but it’s not a bad idea, either. Like with business cards, you never know who you’re going to run into. You never know who’s going to be curious and ask to see your work.

Now, I wouldn’t carry your portfolio with the intent of shoving it under the nose of every person you’d see--go with your own comfort level on this one. But hey, maybe someone will want to see it. Maybe someone would be willing to give you feedback. Now, portfolios can be heavy to carry around. Keep them small: 8.5”x11” is a good, portable size. It’s cool to go smaller too. I found little 5”x7” portfolios once and bought a few as leave-behinds (to give to recruiters at a conference). I thought they’d be put off by the size, but everyone I showed them to thought they were really cute!

5. If not a portfolio, then a postcard!

Postcards are a standard promotional item for illustrators, so a lot of us take them with us to conferences. They’re just like business cards, only bigger - great for showing off artwork! 4”x6” or 5”x7” are standard sizes.

6. You don't have to take notes.

I actually got this tip from author Jennifer Bosworth. I was a champion note-taker until I saw her advise against it in a blog post. Keeping your head up and eyes on the speaker shows them that you're paying attention, and sometimes that can be reassuring for a nervous speaker. I still take notes at panels, but not with the same frequency. As it happens, an author recently commented to me after his talk that he appreciated looking out at the audience and seeing attentive faces looking back at him, so it does help!

7. Most importantly, have fun! 

Conventions, especially the larger ones, can be overwhelming. Keep a reasonable schedule for yourself, take breaks when you need, and socialize at your own pace and comfort level.

Now go forth my intrepid friends!


Kimberly G. Giarratano said...

I love networking! Especially because I don't work outside my home and I get itchy to talk to people. This weekend I'm going to an author event 30 minutes from home and I can't wait. Which reminds me, I need to bring my biz-ness cards.

Brianna Lebrecht said...

Great post! It reminded me that there's a convention in my area every summer. I should look at the dates for this year and see if it's practical to attend!

Leandra Wallace said...

I'm going to my state's SCBWI conference next month. Super excited! There, they print our your name to wear on a lanyard, and I did what I saw a lot of ppl doing- stuck my business cards in the back of name card. Made it super easy to grab! I like your tip about notes too. It would be intimidating as a speaker to look out and see a bunch of bent heads.

Carrie Beckort said...

Great post! Networking is so very important. I also know from my corporate role that many people are very uncomfortable with it. I think you give some great tips!

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