weaty palms, a racing pulse, and you suspect the last bit of oxygen has just been sucked out of the atmosphere. No, youíre not having a heart attack. Youíve just entered your first networking encounter. (Cue Twilight Zone music.)
Networking at your first conference may seem scary, but itís easy to bring the heebie jeebies down to a mild twitter. It's a wonderful tool to develop whether youíre an accomplished author or someone brand new in the field.
Networking requires a certain amount of self-confidence. And confidence is all about being prepared. Before you walk into your next networking opportunity, arm yourself with a smile, a can-do attitude, and a genuine desire to meet new people.
Probably the first networking opportunity most people find themselves in will be at a writerís conference. Donít let fear keep you from making the most of it.
My first experience was a writerís novel workshop. It was probably the most terrifying two weeks of my life because I was living with strangers who got to see me without my makeup. Come to think of it, it probably wasnít too much fun for them either.
I could kick myself for not taking advantage of that opportunity to expand my network of peers, but it did teach me a valuable lesson for the next time. Here are my tricks for making your next time a memorable one.
"You want to present an inviting image that is easy on the eyes... and the nostrils."
Before the Conference
Get your business cards printed. This is your number one tool and conversation starter. You can find free business cards from Vista Print. All you pay is shipping. They do have a small advert on the backside but itís nothing obtrusive. And the price is right.
Plan on a comfortable and appropriate wardrobe. Business casual is the key. Unless you like walking on stilts, leave the stilettos at home. Also, go easy on the hairspray and perfume. You want to present an inviting image that is easy on the eyes...and the nostrils.
Rehearse your elevator speech. The conference will be your chance to present yourself to a new circle of peers.
During the Conference
Smile and offer a firm handshake. No one is going to bite you. Chances are good the other person is feeling just as self-conscious. Be the first to break the ice with a warm smile and a welcoming attitude.
Introduce yourself in a clear voice. If this is a venue where people are coming from different parts of the world, be sure to tell them where youíre from too. Donít carry on about your kids or spouse. You want to appear friendly, but businesslike.
"One lady wrote down, "mule skinner"
on her card..."
Always look people in the eye when youíre in conversation. You donít want to appear distracted or uncomfortable with their company.
Ask people about themselves. My favorite icebreaker whenever I go to a conference is to ask folks what it is they write. Ask them about their works in progress, their publications, or their experience. People love to talk about themselves. Let them.
Exchange business cards. But hereís an added trick. Before you hand someone your business card, jot down a little something extra. It could be a different email address than whatís printed, or a phone number. One lady wrote down, ďmule skinnerĒ on her card to remind me about one of our conversations. Not only did that bring an immediate smile to my face, I remember her and our chats distinctly.
Suck it up and go to those mixers, even if you donít know a soul. I always feel more comfortable when I have a beverage in my hand. Itís like having a security blanket, and it gives your hands something to do besides picking at the lint in your pocket.
This leads me to an extra caution. While alcohol is prevalent at these functions, never overindulge. My trick is to order ginger ale. Looks just as classy in a wine glass and no one can tell the difference.
After the Conference
Go through the stack of business cards youíve collected and jot down a little memo about each person youíve met.
Invest in one of those business card albums so you can store everything youíve amassed. This is the start of your networking list. I usually sort them in order of relevance to my interests. Iíve found several critique partners this way and have even snagged a couple of writing and design gigs.
Keep in touch. The whole point of networking is to keep the cycle alive. Email the folks who inspired or clicked with you. Find things to do together if itís logistically possible. If distance keeps you apart, work online.
Networking doesnít have to happen in person. I once networked with people inside the framework of an online class. Since then, several of us have formed a coaching group designed to keep us productive and motivated.
"Networking is not about what you can get,
but what you can offer."
- Do remember that this is a business relationship first. Respect your networking peers and donít saddle them with your personal problems. Thatís the quickest way to destroy a valuable relationship.
- Never gossip or talk behind someoneís back. You want to be admired for your graciousness and tact.
- Mingle. Agents are always popular people at a conference, but donít monopolize their time. They are there to do business too.
- Donít overindulge in anything. That includes alcohol, food, or smokes. Keep a tin of breath mints handy.
- Dress conservatively. You donít want to call undue attention to yourself.
- Practice your inside voice. Learn to speak in a well-modulated tone.
- Make dates. At my last conference, several of us got together afterward for dinner. Away from the formal structure of the seminar we were able to relax and get to know each other at a slower pace.
Networking is not about what you can get, but what you can offer. Listen, ask questions, and share. Itís a relationship that can last years and even a lifetime.
Go forth and mingle. And if youíre still feeling nervous, come and find me. Iíll be glad to introduce you.
Maria Zannini is a writer and graphic artist living in north Texas. By day she saves the world from bad advertising, and the rest of the time she writes spicy SF and fantasy and blogs almost exclusively on writing at www.mariazannini.blogspot.com. Her humor short story is in the travel anthology, More Sand In My Bra and her paranormal romance, Touch of Fire has been contracted by Samhain Publishing. Watch for it in 2008.