Anna Ganley, head of staff at The Society of Authors, offers top tips for writers attending professional events
Are you the type of writer who is comfortable promoting your ideas, books and brand from behind a computer keyboard, but who lacks the confidence to navigate a room? Perhaps the word ‘networking’ fills you with dread, while others seem to throw themselves into a room full of strangers with ease.
The good news is that networking is a learnable skill – and for the potential unexpected and positive outcomes on your career, it’s worth learning to do it well. Here are a few practical tips to help overcome your fears.
- Research the guest list – check for any familiar names you can look out for at the event.
- Plan your talking points – have questions ready to ask, such as ‘How did you get started in…?’ or ‘What are you hoping to achieve from this event?’ Write questions down and practice ahead of time.
- Consider what you want to share about yourself – asking consecutive questions without sharing personal information can start to feel like an interrogation.
If you’re at an event with authors, agents or publishers, ask about their current project or seek out their recommendations for your next read. The key with conversation openers is to find a natural way in that suits you.
And keep in mind that you’ve got something in common with every person in the room: the event you’re attending; the food and drink you’re consuming; what’s happening in the world today – a bit of light-hearted headline sharing is a great way to break the ice!
Find a buddy
You don’t always have to go at it alone. At Society of Authors events we operate a buddy scheme, which can make large events much less intimidating. Find out if there’s anyone you know going along and go with them or take a friend. Chatting to people in pairs or small groups can be a comfort blanket when you’re getting started.
Be that person
Don’t dwell on how scary it is to start a conversation. Focus on the fact that by doing so you’ll be helping other people feel more comfortable and at ease. Walking into a room full of unknown people can feel intimidating, so where you haven’t seen the guest list in advance, try looking toward the outskirts of the room and find someone standing on their own. Maybe they don’t know anyone either and they’re hoping someone will come and talk to them.
Whatever you talk about, there’s nothing more flattering than showing a genuine interest in what someone has to say. Ask what they do and why they’re at the event, or just reach out your hand and say hello.
Try to listen more than you talk – hard to do when you’re nervous, but you don’t want to come across as pushy, especially if you’re pitching your next writing project to an agent or publisher. As an attentive listener, you’ll stand out as someone who values others.
If your body language is closed and cold, you’ll signal that you wish to remain undisturbed. Even a slight change of posture can change the course of conversations. Smile, try to relax, and look as warm and casual as you can. It will encourage someone to walk up to you and start a conversation.
If you know a few faces in the room, asking someone if there’s someone they’d like to meet gives you a role by introducing them. This is a handy trick as it allows you to join that conversation too, and it enables you to participate without being the centre of the conversation.
Challenge yourself to talk to at least three new people. This will give you confidence when you achieve this goal and spur you on to talk to others. It’ll push you outside your comfort zone, but networking can have unexpected resultsfrom a new contact to an idea for a story to a book deal. You may be surprised at the number of people you speak to once you get going.
Wrap it up and move on, professionally
It’s easy to get stuck in a discussion with somebody out of fear of appearing rude. They may be very interesting, but the purpose of networking is to meet new people. A good rule is to talk to one person for 5-10 minutes and then move on to the rest of the room.
When the time comes to move on, if you’re polite and respectful the person you’re talking to will understand. You want to leave a positive lasting impression, so be sure to thank them and a genuine compliment never hurts either. Here are some things you could try:
- Plan a follow-up: exchange contact details and plan to stay in touch.
- Shift the focus: tell the individual that you need to say hi to someone else. They will understand – they’re there to network too.
- Introduce someone else to the conversation: once they’re chatting leave them to it. Wait for a natural pause in the conversation: use the opportunity to tell them how nice it was to meet them and move on. • Make it benefit them: tell them that you don’t want to hold them up so they can make the most of the event, too.
- Get another drink/more food: you can always say you need to top-up or visit the loo!
And finally, practice
Go to events regularly to build your confidence. Learn how to open and close those professional conversations and grow your professional networks. The more you do it, the less challenging it will become and the more people you will know in the room anyway.