How to Nail Your First Writers' Conference
This past week I attended my first ever writers' conference – the San Miguel Writers' Conference in Mexico. I was incredibly nervous because while I love workshops and learning and honing in on my craft, the idea of mingling and networking and approaching strangers terrified me, especially because I knew I'd be one of the younger attendees at this conference. But despite that fear, I knew I had to push myself out of my comfort zone as a storyteller and attending a conference was the next step in that direction.
However, very quickly I realized my fears were absolutely ridiculous. I forgot that a writers' conference is filled with a bunch of people just like me – people who are mostly introverted, who have spent hours alone in their room writing, people who geek out at character development or publication tactics – and suddenly attending the conference became not only easy but fun. I didn't have to worry about boring small talk. Every single conversation nearly always led back to my favorite topic – storytelling!
So after getting over the initial nerves, I began to warm up to the experience. I didn't put too much pressure on myself, but I did learn few things I thought would help other writers attending their first conference, some of which I wish I had known ahead of time too.
1. Ask questions
If I were to emphasize one aspect that you should focus on during your first conference it is to make sure to ask tons of questions. And when I say ask questions I don't just mean in workshops or after keynote speakers, but anyone you talk with at the conference.
Even if someone asks you something first, always try to direct the conversation back to the other person with a question. At a writers' conference coming up with questions is fairly easy. Just ask what they're writing! Not only does this make others you are talking to feel good, but it is also where you will undoubtedly learn the most.
During my conference I found that the people I made the best connections with were the ones who I asked more questions. More often than not, the people who I spent more time answering questions with than asking them did not create a genuine interaction, whereas those who I asked tons of questions were the people who I ended up keeping in touch with throughout the conference and even afterwards.
But this isn't always easy. There's a certain pressure to network at conferences and to make sure you mention the project you're working on as soon as possible in case that person is the "big connection" you've been searching for. However the reality is that more than likely they are not that person. And that's okay. In fact, that's even better because often the speakers at keynotes at workshops are a lot farther along in the industry than you are and as a result often don't remember as clearly what it's like to be in your seat – a pupil dying to get their story right and get it out to the world – so that your neighbors and workshop classmates might have better resources for your current situation.
Because a writers' conference is just as much about learning as it is networking, so that when you're at a huge conference you should see it just as much as a place to learn and grow as a place to network and you can only do that by asking people questions about themselves.
Of course it's okay to spend time talking about your work. That's part of the sharing experience and your chance to teach other people something new too. Just be wary when you've been speaking for too long - something I know I certainly do when I get excited about a project - and make a point to turn the conversation back to the person you are speaking with.
Heading to your first conference? Use my FREE worksheet to prepare!
2. Bring business cards
Even though I just said to make a point to ask other people questions and to avoid treating each person like a business opportunity, you'll still want to bring business cards. Why? Because when you make those genuine connections with people and want to keep in touch, business cards are a great way to make it easier for the other person to reach out to you.
See it as a way to give people contact information quickly and easily without having to deal with the phone exchange or finding them later on Facebook, not as a way to advertise yourself. That way whenever you hand someone your card it will be a genuine indication that you want to connect with that person instead of making things about yourself.
There will be some people who hand them out to everyone they meet, but try and avoid handing them out until it feels natural or if someone asks you. Anyone who handed me a business card too early or seemed like they were promoting something I usually tossed. It wasn't that I thought they had a bad idea or didn't like them, but that they connection hadn't felt meaningful and I wanted to ensure another person's business card I kept didn't get buried with random cards from people.
3. Prepare a brief sentence or two ahead of time describing your project
Though I urge you to ask other people questions and make things about others and not yourself, you should still be prepared to share information about your work.
Often I found during the conference that I was unable to quickly describe my project and that led to a few instances when I began to ramble off. It did nothing to make me sound more interesting and instead only made me appear as if I didn't have a good grasp on what my story was actually about – which was true.
So, before the conference, write a brief synopsis about your book or script or whatever you're working on. Keep it short so you can get back to the person you're talking to and make it about them, otherwise you'll end up babbling on and on about your project. If the person you're talking to is intrigued, they'll ask you more about the details, but otherwise keep it simple ahead of time. Not only does it make you sound more professional, but it's great practice on learning how to pitch to an agent.
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4. Set conference goals
No matter where you are in the writing process you should still set conference goals ahead of time. Those goals could be to speak to an agent or to read your work out loud to a group of people for critique. Whatever you choose, try to define goals that will push you in some way and enhance your writing career, even if it's just plucking up the courage to speak to an instructor after a workshop.
While general goals can be could motivators, try setting up some S.M.A.R.T. goals ahead of time so you're more likely to meet your goals. Goals like "get an agent" may seem like good goals beforehand, but they are likely to leave you feeling disappointed as the goal's success is partially out of your control.
Additionally, as the conference goes on, new goals may emerge that you didn't realize you wanted to achieve. For instance when I was at the conference I realized I wanted to speak with an agent. Before the conference I didn't want to because I didn't have a completed manuscript. But after several agents emphasized they would be willing to hear from authors who didn't have finished works so that they might give them advice, I decided I wanted to meet with one. Though in the end that goal didn't end up happening, be sure to note the goals that emerge during the conference too, as those will likely become your conference goals for the next time.
5. But don't stress
Even though you'll have goals you really want to meet, if you don't manage to do all of those things don't stress yourself out. Listen to how you're feeling as the day goes by. If you're exhausted and know you need some alone time, take that time and skip out on a keynote speech by someone you don't know as well. If you're becoming overwhelmed by all the different people to meet, find a nook to read and write in so you're still making progress at the conference.
Not everything is going to go perfectly right your first conference, so don't be hard on yourself when some of your goals aren't met or if you spend too much time talking and potentially ruin a connection. It's your first conference and as a result it's a learning experience, not a test. Though you're there to make connections and grow as a writer, you also want to ensure you're actually having a good time and that your time was meaningfully spent.
After all, it's likely your first conference won't be your last, so make sure you start off on a high note so you'll be even better prepared for the next one!
Heading to your first conference? Use my FREE worksheet to prepare!
Have you been to a writers' conference? Tell me how it went!