(Part One is here.)
When I first started going to conferences, I had the Hello down pat, but couldn’t think of what to say after that. I had to learn the art of conversation, but I discovered it’s actually not that hard.
More than a list of questions to remember—which you won’t remember when you’re nervous and meeting people—here are a few tips on how to keep the conversation going.
Keep up with publishing news. This is useful for conversation with editors, agents, and even writers. You can ask editors questions about their publishing house based on information you might have read, or you can ask the agent questions about a certain genre market.
For example, there were several personnel changes in a specific publishing house in a short period of time, and I had read about it. I chatted with an employee for that publishing house at a conference and asked her how things were going, if things had settled into a routine, if the personnel was replaced yet, etc.
Keep yourself well informed, not just marginally informed, so you can ask INTELLIGENT QUESTIONS. You don’t want to ask about the historical fiction market if there’s nothing going on. However, say it’s doing poorly—you can maybe ask a question about where the agent/editor thinks it’ll go in the next few years, or if they think it’ll upswing soon.
Keep up with book titles. Being well-informed about authors and titles, and especially knowing their publishing houses, is good for starting conversations with editors and authors. You can talk about titles you’ve read or heard about, and ask about any titles they mention that you haven’t heard about.
For example, I chatted with a marketing director from NavPress and was able to talk to them about their most recent titles. Obviously, I hadn’t read them all, but I mentioned that I’d heard wonderful things about Sharon Hinck’s The Restorer and Tosca Lee’s Demon. The NavPress marketing director also mentioned a couple titles I hadn’t heard of, so I immediately asked her about them.
Ask people about themselves. You obviously don’t want to get too nosy, but friendly questions about themselves will usually get people chatting. Women typically like talking about their children. Anyone in the publishing industry will enjoy talking about what they’re reading now.
This is an easy conversation to keep going, because you can also mention books you’re reading and enjoying (or not enjoying). Although be careful about bashing books in public—you don’t want to be complaining about a Zondervan book to a Zondervan editor or marketing director.
Once the person mentions something about themselves, jump onto that. Ask questions, or mention your own personal experience in relation to it.
When I did my first booksigning, since the book was Sushi for One, I asked people if they ever ate sushi. Some people would go on about their experiences, others said, “No.” So I asked what foods they did like. They usually gave a little more information, and I’d ask questions based on what they said. If they said they liked Mexican, I’d mention a great Mexican dive near my house that I enjoy eating at, and asked if they had a favorite restaurant.
Present yourself as real and authentic, but upbeat and positive. For your own side of the conversation, don’t degenerate to whining or complaining about things. It tends to give a negative first impression for you. Venting is for when you’re with your friends—keep a lid on it with strangers.
Don’t try to be someone you’re not. Fakers are easy to spot. Don’t try to be someone you think they want you to be like. Try to relax and just be yourself (a positive version of yourself)—be real and authentic.
(And if you’re not a positive person at all, then that’s something you will need to take up with God and a counselor. No one—whether an editor, agent, or Joe Schmoe on the street—likes talking with someone who’s always negative or complaining.)
Remember to listen. I mentioned this in my previous article, but this is worth mentioning again. Listen closely to what they’re saying. Don’t be thinking about your next question to ask them, or worrying about what to say, etc.
If you listen to their answer, you can better know what question to ask next, or what you can say to continue the conversation. The conversation always goes better if your next statement is based on what they just said, using that as a jumping-off point.
If you’re still unsure, PRACTICE. Get some friends to call you on the phone or meet with you in person and pretend to be a stranger. Practice your skills on continuing conversations.
Networking is definitely a skill you can learn. Practice at home, and you’ll be ready for conferences.