Conventions and writing, or Schmoozing 101

Let me talk about conventions and their relationship to my writing life. Everyone will have very different experiences, depending on their personality. Here’s how it works for me.

I primarily go to conventions for three reasons.

  1. To see other people in the field whose company I enjoy.
  2. Improve craft/business sense.
  3. To be “visible.”


1) To see other people in the field whose company I enjoy.

I relish the social aspect of SF. There are people that I just plain like and a convention is like old home week. It’s fun! I like you guys.

2) Improve craft/business sense.
A convention with a really good list of panels is going to appeal to me more than one in which I only hang out at the bar (though I love that, too). I want to know what’s happening in the field and to think about things that aren’t just products of my own brain banging against the inside of my skull. Even if I only learn one new thing, that’s a thing I didn’t know before.

3) To be “visible”
I’m a new writer, so I’m building my “brand.” I’m not going to get that many new readers at a convention, but the people at cons are the ones who vote on things and frankly, nominations can be leveraged ((Nominations and awards do not automatically mean a reader increase. You have to know how to work them, but the power of narrative on career is a different topic.)) into getting more readers which means…that cons are filled with a good target audience. Cons also tend to have editors at them and those are good people to know.

Now, I’ll be frank about how this works, because a lot of people don’t understand how to do effective schmoozing. Yes, yes, I’m aware that admitting this happens is distasteful. But, I’m going to talk about how to schmooze, anyway.

Schmoozing 101

These are all ideas to employ but none of them are hard and fast rules. Schmoozing is all about being charming and that will vary somewhat depending on the situation. So, here are the basic ideas behind successful schmoozing.

First idea: The other person is more interesting than you are.

Clearly, there are going to be cases where this isn’t true BUT act like it is. Why? Because the more time someone spends talking about himself and the more he feels intelligent and the more interesting he will think the conversation is. Hence, the more interesting he will think you are. So practice being a good listener.

Now, the way I do this is that as I’m talking with the person, I listen for the things that we have common interests in. They like cars? Great, I can reference the MG-TD that I covet. That gives me something to add to the conversation so that they don’t feel like they are being interrogated.

What if you can’t find any common ground?

Second idea: Have an exit strategy.
Let’s say you are a writer talking to an editor. It’s a good conversation, but you don’t know them all that well. The conversation pauses. Rather than looking for a way to prolong it, excuse yourself. To borrow from theater, “Always leave them wanting more.”

Exit strategies are also useful when you are trapped in a conversation. It’s okay to break the flow and say, “I’m so sorry, it’s been good talking to you, but I need to [x].” Yes, I’m suggesting that you lie. They trapped you. You are escaping. It’s fair.

But if the conversation is going well?

Third idea: Don’t be the first to bring up business.
Why? Because everyone at the con is talking about writing and business and you, you will be a welcome respite in the midst of a sea of people who have all been talking about the same things. You stand out this way. Now, if someone else brings it up, you are more than welcome to indulge, but don’t go there first. Later, make sure you follow up, but when you are in a non-business setting, leave the business alone.

Fourth idea: When the conversation turns to business, be prepared.
It is a con, so the conversation is very likely to swing round to writing. If you have something to pitch, practice your pitch at home. If you have a question, practice it at home. If you’ve gone to panels, think about what your opinion is before someone asks you.

Right now, I’m sucking at answering the question, “So what do you write?”

I rattle off a couple of magazines — which is what they want to hear — and I fail to say, “I’m one of the finalists for the Campbell Award this year.” I think I told two people that at the last con. This is foolish. Someone gave me an opening to pimp myself and I didn’t oblige them.

Fifth idea: Be physically pleasant.

Is this shallow? Yes, yes it is. But we’ve all read the studies that repeatedly show that people who are attractive are treated better, so for heaven’s sake, take advantage of that. You look good in green? Wear green. Nicely turned calves? Show them off. And for heaven’s sake, bathe. Trust me, in a con, just a little bit of effort will make you stand out.

Want to know a secret? In real life, I almost never wear makeup, but I wear it at conventions. Too many people take photos and I look dead in photos without it. Especially on very little sleep, which is a natural state at cons.

Sixth idea: Follow up.

You meet someone who is either fascinating or who might be a good connection later. Drop them a line afterwards. It can be as simple as swinging by their website and saying “Hey, good to meet you!” Don’t stalk them, but that tiny bit of post con contact will help them remember who you are. Heck, it’ll help you remember who they are too.

By the way, this is why it’s good to hand out cards at conventions. I’ve been bad about this lately and keep forgetting to print enough to take with me.

So let’s review.
1. The other person is always more interesting than you are.
2. Have an exit strategy.
3. Don’t be the first to bring up business.
4. If business comes up, be prepared.
5. Be physically pleasant, ie, bathe.
6. Follow up.

There are other things too, but these are the basics.

40 Responses

  1. J. Cheney

    I would love to print this out and hand it out to con-goers this week-end…

    Unfortunately, I fear the ones who need it most wouldn’t read it.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Thanks, Cat! My biggest fear in posting this is that people will now watch me at cons and think I’m conniving and manipulative, which I am, but I’m sincere about it.

      Actually, the idea that “other people are more interesting than you” is something my mother taught me for booking conferences. It makes it more enjoyable for me because I wind up learning so much more and getting to talk about things that I otherwise wouldn’t.

  2. Elizabeth Barrette

    Excellent essay! My reasons for attending conventions are pretty much the same as yours. I’m not fond of outright schmoozing; I prefer its close relatives, networking and making friends. The differences are mainly stylistic. There’s a lot of overlap in our approach. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      I’m not sure that it’s really a stylistic difference. I mean, schmoozing can be much more active, it’s true, but pretty much everything that I’m talking about is part of networking and making friends.

      Active schmoozing comes into play if…okay, let me use theater as an example. Opening night of a show, part of my job sometimes is to be visible and pleasant so that sponsors will feel even better about giving their money to the show. In that case, being on display, I’m actively schmoozing. I usually wind up telling the same stories over and over, because meeting the creators of the show is part of the opening night experience. That is very active schmoozing.

      The rest of the time, it is passive schmoozing, which you’d probably call networking and making friends.

  3. Jeff

    3a Do not be “the one” to bring up business in the public restroom. Or private restroom. Or any restroom.

    Evar.

    (Why do I say this…because inevitably some agent or editor gets caught at the urinal (men) or in the stall (men or women) or washing their hands (just the women—we know men don’t wash their hands by “the one”)

  4. David de Beer

    Idea 2-6: check.

    Idea 1: brain crashing, fast, every time…

    heh, thanks Mary, very insightful. I have stumbled this. I like stumbling, it’s rather fun.

    but the power of narrative on career

    do post on this, it sounds interesting.

  5. Mike F

    Very informative post. When is part 2 coming? How to network in airports and airplanes. You seem be good at that as well. :) It’s good to see posts like this since you don’t have to share this information, yet you choose to help people out.

  6. Chris Billett

    Ha, so I guess I met you at my first con, after a few drinks… and butted in on your conversation. That, and the next time I met you, I was trying to hide the fact that I was a bit of a wreck due to circumstances out of my control a day before the con… I dread to think of the impression I’ve made on people at WFCs!

    Ah, well. I concur with your sentiments, though, and would say I go for some of the same reasons. I like to be very real, though, and if people don’t like me for what I am… there are usually others who do, and see that it’s genuine. (I hope!)

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Did you butt in? I thought I was the one butting in. As I recall, you were chatting with Gary and I just randomly joined in.

      I like to be very real, though, and if people don’t like me for what I am… there are usually others who do, and see that it’s genuine.

      Ah… see, this is the key and it’s the thing that’s hardest to get across in Idea 1. The reason that finding the common interest works is that I don’t have to fake it. I won’t pretend to be someone that I’m not. ((I do that in theater, but people are paying me then.)) I mean, if you start talking about football, I’m liable to zone out very quickly. Baseball, there’s enough there that I like that I can enjoy the conversation. If you start talking theater or about a favorite book or cooking, then I’m instantly hooked. Does that make sense? Effective schmoozing isn’t about being someone else. People can sense fakers a mile away. It’s about being yourself at your most charming.

      1. Chris Billett

        I think that’s very true, actually. You do come across as very genuine, too. Before WFC ’06 I only knew Scott and Jenny Lynch, and Gary, but by the end of it plenty of people had entirely convinced me that cons were worth attending just for the fabulous people you meet. Yourself included. But it was because we genuinely had a lot in common, and it seemed natural.

        Perhaps I have the butting in round the wrong way. Hmm. Coincidentally, I just this moment got back from having a drink with one of Gary’s friends (or a family friend’s daughter, or something) who’s over in London working for a law firm this month. Apparently I meet awesome people through him? He’s a fantastic guy..

  7. Chris Billett

    We do! Quick, synchronise watches! (I’d better make that synchronize before I wave my laptop in front of the Telectroscope and Microsoft Word’s office clippy appears out of nowhere and kicks my shins for my naughty English trans-Atlantic spellings)

    Did you follow the website link to see the giant elephant they did in London? That would have impressed you, seriously.

  8. Michele Lee

    Very helpful. Might I add: do not be afraid to make a fool of yourself. However, refrain from making an ass of yourself.

    I’m bad with names and not terribly social and I stumble verbally sometimes. I usually say that I think better through my hands. But if I sit back doing nothing because I’m afraid I won’t recognize some big name editor or publisher or might reveal to n author that I’ve only read their blog, or a short story and I’m not a proper fan girl at all, well that gets nothing done. Whereas if I stumble or make a mistake, maybe we can all have a good laugh about it and move on.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Good advice, but let me expand on it. You don’t have to worry about making a fool of yourself because the person that you are talking to is just another person. All you have to do is turn off the part of your brain that thinks, “OMG! This is [x] and they are so FAMOUS and so GOOD and talking to me!”

      No, no. This is [x] and they are staying at the same hotel, eating at the same restaurants and had to go through the same travel ordeal to get there as you did.

      When dealing with celebrity — unless the person is a jerk — they are more than likely relieved if you aren’t a fan girl. Think about it. If someone comes up to you and gushes at length about something you’ve done, doesn’t there hit a point that you feel uncomfortable? You’re appreciative, of course, but since you haven’t seen what they’ve done, you can’t reciprocate. It’s hard to transition out of that conversation. It feels awkward. So it’s okay to not be fan-girl. It’s okay to not have read their stuff.

      1. Michele Lee

        Perhaps I should adjust my definition of fan-girl then. I’m not ever going to be the type of Brian Keene (let’s use him, he’s used to it ;) ) fan who has read all his works. It’s that feeling that I’m thinking of, that “OMG I am a peon who’s only made one big sale and here is a Real Writer(TM) who has fans that pay lots of money to read everything he puts out. I want to make a good impression. I want this guy to consider me his peer, not just another sycophant, or worse, just some douche.”

        You’re right. These “big names” are just people too. But sometimes it’s hard not to over think about networking. My biggest fear is that I’ll meet someone and have no clue who they are until someone else points it out. I’ve done that before.

      1. Chris Billett

        Ha! The potential situations that spring to mind are hilarious/disastrous. Suddenly conventions that used to be drunken laugh-fests become a room full of plotting and scheming Robert Jordan characters trying to sell their latest magic sword-wielding detective mouse story… Mary, what have you done?!?

        (I jest, of course)

        1. Chris Billett

          Hmm. Me too… you’ve done phone message stories, how about collaborative comment concoctions? Or via the Telectroscope. I’m thinking noir?

          “Mickey lit up a diet cigarette – menthol, good for the bones – and knocked back a neat shot of whisky as he contemplated the Car-Pool Killer’s latest crime. It was sick; sharing rides to cut costs and carbon footprints was one thing, but to murder a victim halfway across Brooklyn Bridge and then keep their dead body bouncing along happily for the pool lane’s cameras was an eco-disaster waiting to happen. Think about the decomposing corpses.

          Mickey couldn’t think about decomposing corpses, though. All he could think about was his beautiful ex-wife Minnie, and the way her thick black lashes used to bat together and like iron rungs when she fluttered her eyelids towards the camera. She’d left him for a shaman shapeshifter – Goofy’d had them fooled all along – and now all he had left was his sword, Fantasia, and the little magic that he’d learned from Pocahontas…”

  9. Felicity Shoulders

    This post is really timely for me — I recently had my first pub, and yet more recently missed an opportunity to go to a con. It’s good for me to have it reinforced that cons are good for me and I need to seek them out. And how better to reinforce this than by reading about it on the blog of someone I met at a con? Thanks for writing this!

  10. John Chu

    Thank you for the excellent advice. There’s one thing that I want to add. Maybe it’s too obvious to mention. However, I screw this up more than I want to admit, so I’m going to point it out anyway:

    Pay attention to body language!

    I stood next to Charlie Stross for minutes before I realized that he was free to talk and wasn’t sure if I had wanted to talk to him. (Of course I wanted to talk to him. He’s Charlie Stross.) I wasted several minutes with ambiguous “is it ok for me to be here?” body language before I finally caught on. When someone indicates that he’s free to talk to you, he probably means it. D’oh…
    (Luckily, he was sitting on the couch so I didn’t really inconvenience him. I was mortified after the fact though.)

    Likewise, when that person is ready to end the conversation, his or her body language will indicate this. This may be a good time for you to invoke your exit strategy. You don’t want to trap others.

    BTW, “Goosegirl” is the best reading I’ve heard ever. Maggie’s story is already wonderful, but the reading heightened it more than I’d thought possible. Thank you so much for doing it. I hope for more?

  11. Chang

    Very well put as always, MRK. I think I employed some of these when I made my con debut at Readercon last year. Let’s hope I can keep it together if I meet Jonathan Lethem in person, or better yet, in the can. I have been known to cross 6 lanes of NYC traffic for an autograph (Fred Ward, no less), so I suspect my interpersonal skills can be overrun when I see someone famous.

    More importantly I hope to employ these when I see you at Readercon this year. Last time I was so freaked out at being at my first con I was a total geek. Nerdgassing all the way ’round.

  12. Shannon

    I’ve run into Idea 1 before (and even believe it, nine times out of ten), but then I open my mouth and stupid crap falls out. I end up babbling about myself out of nervousness, even though I really want to hear what the other person says. Is this just a practice issue, and how do I avoid alienating people while I practice? :)

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      That’s totally normal, and most people won’t even notice. Being conscious of it can help you slide past that nervousness and channel it into curiosity.

      Most of it is just practice, which can be helped by opening with small talk. It’s useful. Ask them where they came in from or “What brings you to the con?” or something general, then look for points you can follow-up on.

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Pretty much like any other business card in that it depends on the author.

      I carry two to cons. One just has information about the books, plus my website. The other has my phone number, email address, and website. I only give the second one out to industry people that I need to be in contact with later.

      A friend of mine makes one specially for conventions on which he lists the panels he’ll be on, his hotel information, plus his email. I think that’s smart, but I’m not that organized.