You can be a smashing writer, smoothly running your business from the comforts of your home, but if you lack connections it’s damned hard to make a success of it. Fear not! Opportunities to meet people in the industry abound if you have the courage and the will to push yourself forward.
We’re coming into summer, so convention season is upon us once more. Authors, editors and publishers alike are busily prepping for events that bring together industry legends, jobbing freelancers, fresh talents and future prospects. For some it’s a chance to catch up with old friends; for others it’s all about learning and networking. You’ll be happy to know that the two are not mutually exclusive.
I’ll be at ChillerCon next week and I’ll be happy to meet you for the first time or the thousandth. Business may be transactional but there’s much more nuance when it comes to building relationships – and that’s all networking is: getting to know your peers.
Easy enough to say of course, but as a fully paid-up member of the socially-anxious club I know just how intimidating it can be. That’s why I thought I’d give you my top 3 tips on Breaking the ice, What NOT to do, and deepening relationships by Following up.
Breaking the ice
It’s one thing to want to get to know people, quite another to throw yourself into the mix. If you’re no natural when it comes to socialising you may need to gird your loins first. Here are some ways to prep and break the ice:
Clarity of purpose.
First up, it’s useful to have some clarity of purpose. You know why *you want to connect but pay some thought to what other people’s goals are—particularly those you hope to connect with. What is it that they’re here to do? Are they trading, are they going from panel to panel, are they seeking social contact? Critically, are there ways in which your needs and ambitions might align with theirs? If you believe so, there’s a good foundation to build on.
Have a wing-person
Socialising can be exhausting, particularly for people prone to introversion. I’m often caught between the need to network and my absolute aversion to it. In such situations I find it helpful to pair up with a friend. It’s far easier to maintain an engaged and sociable state of mind when you’re hanging out with someone you know and trust. I find that group conversations are lighter and flow more smoothly. There’s less individual pressure so I’m able to stay relatively calm and chatty.
Small steps to overcome social anxiety
Fear of rejection can be inhibiting, particularly when we feel out of our depth. In a busy environment it can seem as though everybody knows everybody else, and that sense of being an outsider gets magnified. Acknowledge the feeling but don’t let it control you. If you struggle to actively approach people, at least try to be inviting. Don’t hide in a book or a laptop. Catching people’s eyes, smiling and acknowledging them are small but important steps in becoming a recognised face. It took me a while to appreciate the value of small talk, but it’s a handy conversational lubricant. An appropriate complement rarely goes amiss and can usually be followed up with related questions that deepen into true conversation.
What NOT to do
People make painful errors in their efforts occasionally, and I’m no exception. Sometimes it comes through anxiety, sometimes thoughtlessness—and look, sometimes there’s a simple mismatch of personality. That’s life. There’s no way to force a good relationship. Here are some things you should definitely avoid, though.
Conventions are full of activity and most folks are on a schedule. If the person you want to speak to keeps checking their watch or is moving at speed, it’s a poor time to approach them; they clearly have things on their mind and assuredly won’t want to be pounced on. Look for more appropriate moments to speak, when they seem more at ease. If openings seem slim, it doesn’t hurt to intrude briefly to say something nice e.g. ‘I really enjoyed the panel you were on. I can see you’re busy now, but I’d love to talk with you about it later on. Would that be okay?’ Chances are they would be delighted.
Hit and run
I remember my earliest attempts to make business connections with a kind of queasy horror: introducing myself to strangers as an Editor, awkwardly handing out business cards and asking if they had any work, then trudging on to the next person. Ugh. It had the impact of soggy junk mail and was received with equal joy. You need to give them a good reason to remember you when they look at your card in a day or a week or a month. You need to be friendly and capture their interest. If you feel like you’ve made a good impression, then (and only then) you can think about following up with a business card.
There is something deeply disconcerting about a person hovering on the edge of a conversation, making no attempt to introduce themselves or contribute, yet clearly listening in. It sets off the creep alert. Who is this person? What are their intentions? The problem is a combination of apparent sneakiness and a sense of parasitism. Shyness is the usual explanation – and God knows I feel your pain – but relationships go both ways. If you long to participate you’ll have to give as well as take. Be up front; say you half-heard… whatever it was that caught your interest, and ask if you can join in. *Most people will be happy to include you.
You’ve broken the ice and had a conversation. It’s possible that you’re fast friends now, but more likely that you just know each other a little better. With luck there’s a mutual willingness to stay in touch and if so, here are my top ways to help deepen that relationship:
In the blur of events it’s hard to remember everybody’s names and with the best will in the world you may only be left with a general impression of the person you had a good chat with. Appending that conversation with a business card can help to cement you in their mind, particularly if it has your photograph on it. I don’t know if others do this, but when someone gives me their business card I find it handy to jot down a note or two on it about our conversation while it’s fresh in my mind. That way it’s easier to pick up the threads in the future.
For all its problems, social media remains the single most powerful and accessible way to keep in touch with people, to see the facets of their personality shining through, and to begin to deepen your connection. As ever, you get out of these things what you put in. Lurking gets a little info but no deepening of the relationship. Engaging with their posts via supportive comments, pertinent questions, and helping to boost their signal will go much further. Combine that with a regular flow of your own posts and people will get to know you over time in return. That makes things a whole lot easier when you see each other in real life.
Build on your foundations
Whether you’re at another convention, meeting by chance at a social event, applying for a job with them, or simply reconnecting online, it is critical to build on what’s gone before. Show you’ve paid attention by referring to past conversations. Such details demonstrate that they matter and help to re-break the ice. It gets easier every time, I swear. If you have shared interests and hobbies, you might try inviting them to join you. If your career paths align, perhaps you could set up a mutual support chat group on Messenger or WhatsApp. I’ve done it, and my life has been enriched both socially and professionally.
I realise there will be some folks rolling your eyes through this article, wondering just what kind of an over-thinking freak I am. If so, this isn’t for you. There’s plenty more content to dig through on my blog. There are a whole lot of other folks here though who face great difficulty when it comes to interpersonal contact, whether that be through the prism of a neurodivergent perspective, through dealing with severe anxiety, or any one of a hundred other reasons. If my words and my thoughts have been useful to any of you, it’s been worth my time to write it.
For those people still here then, I’ve boiled my tips down to the following for quick reference:
Look for mutual benefits and interests
Find a way to be relaxed, open and inviting
Break the ice gently using body language and small talk
Be respectful of other people’s time and their needs
Be friendly and engaged in conversation
Be direct with them about what you’d like to achieve
Express a wish to renew contact
Use social media to learn about others and to share your own life
Ongoing engagement is improved with reference to previous contact
I’ve spoken here in terms of your active attempts to network. Do bear in mind that introductions often happen on the fly and you never know who you’ll meet. You can’t always prepare yourself, and I know that sucks. Try to be open to possibilities, though. Random conversations can produce new trains of thought, business opportunities may arise, new friendships may form and who-knows-what else. Sometimes the universe provides what you need in the most unexpected of ways.
As I said earlier, I’ll be at ChillerCon in Scarborough from 27-29 May as a red-cloak volunteer, working behind the scenes and helping attendees. If you can make it to the convention and you fancy a chat then I will be happy to do so when my duties allow. If we hit it off nicely, there’s a whole tonne of people I can introduce you to. If we don’t quite click? Well, that’s okay. Not everybody does. But there are loads of lovely people there who will want to make your acquaintance. Go say hi. You’ll be glad you did.
* Do you admire their work? Have you seen them on a panel and do you perhaps have some follow-up questions? Do you have a business proposition to pitch? Are they part of a group that you would like to join? Do they just have the most incredible shoes?
** Respect the wishes of those that are not, though. Nobody owes you their time or their knowledge, and connections can’t be forced. Some people will never be more than nodding acquaintances, and that’s fine. Get pushy and they will actively turn against you.
What would we have to talk about at ChillerCon?
I love chatting about books and comics, table-top and computer games. Happy to hear your recommendations. You can read some of my reviews here if you like.
Perhaps you have more of an interest in having your short fiction performed? Tell me about it and we can chat about how audio could work for you. You can listen to my earliest recordings here if you fancy.
And I’m an editor, you know. We can talk about the trade from my side, or discuss what I can do for you when it comes to critiquing of editing your fiction. Here’s a primer on my services to start you off.
None of the above? Well, I’m sure you’ll think of something. I look forward to meeting you.