Whether you’re headed to your first conference or your fifth, you’re gonna want to plan ahead. Most writers are introverts, and panic at the thought of being in a room with strangers. Relax! You’re going to be fine. The children’s book industry is wonderfully welcoming and supportive. (I’ve attended and presented at conferences across the U.S., from local to international events, and never cease to be amazed at the kindness.) To help maximize your precious time, and all that coin you’ve already dropped on the event, here are some tips I’ve found most helpful:
- Have an overall goal in mind. This might change for every conference. Most people assume they are they are there to get published. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. You’re not going to get a contract at the conference (seriously, toss that thought right now). Be realistic. Let’s assume you’re there to figure out how to get published. Try to break that down into measurable steps.
- Maybe your goal for that one conference is to find an agent, or to find out how to get an agent, or simply bust out of your comfort zone. OK. Can you make it even more specific? If you’re looking for in an agent, for example, what qualities or skills are important to you? Figure that out before you go so you know what to look for in the agents that are there, and you’ll be able to better size up and decide if anyone there is right for you. No sense submitting to an agent you don’t want to work with, right? If you want to break out of your comfort zone, list out two or three specific actions–like initiate a conversation with two strangers, attend that awards banquet by yourself, and/or refuse to sit in your room doing email every night.
- Center all your time/schedule decisions around that one overall goal. Attend only those sessions that fit your goal, for example. It will help you manage your time AND challenge yourself to achieve that specific goal. (Next conference you can attend the other sessions that sounded equally good–odds are you’ll have a difference goal by then.)
- Get ready to smile and say hey. I hate the slimy connotations of the word networking, but conferences are really about the people. Otherwise you’d stay at home. What I mean by that is don’t just focus on the workshop topics, look at who’s teaching them. Read their bios. Try to read the book of the keynote speaker and/or whoever you’re taking classes from beforehand, so you know their background and you’re not coming in cold. That’s how you feel like a insider! By doing your homework you’ll feel like you already have an edge. Odds are you’ll be eager to meet the presenters. When else will you have the chance to meet them, and see what they’re really like? You can take just about any class online these days, but meeting these professionals in person? That’s why you’re there.
- Have your “elevator pitch” ready! You’ll be using it throughout the conference, that is, if you’re taking the conference seriously and are out there meeting people. (Here’s a good primer to get yours shiny.)
- Pack with a theme in mind. Not as in 1800s or hippy, but something that is consistent. It not only helps make packing easier, but makes it much easier for people to find and remember you every day, as well as afterwards. “I’m the one in polka dots” or “I was the one with pink striped hair.” You won’t be in the same thing everyday but people will start to recognize you by how you dress.
- Get your class act together. Speaking of clothes…at writer’s conferences you don’t have to dress to impress, but c’mon, this isn’t your mom’s basement. Make an effort. Dress like you’re going out to eat, not like you just woke up. If you look like you’re taking this seriously–others will take you seriously too. (But skip the heels, ladies, that’s one fashion item that’s just silly at a conference.)
- A simple trick: stick business cards (people still use them!) in your badge holder, so they’re handy. Make sure your website and whatever social media handles/hashtags you use are included–if not, write them in with pen. Consider adding a QR code to your card that allows a cell phone to take people directly to your contact info, including your website URL, without them ever having to type a thing. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WS7jdYZomu0 tells you how to create a free vcard. https://blog.4colorprint.com/great-designs-for-business-card-layout-inspiration has ideas for unique looking biz cards. [Note: I have no affiliation with either of them whatsoever]
- You never know who you’ll be sitting next to so be nice to everyone you meet. Author and illustrator Debbie Ridpath Ohi has some great conference tips on “making the first move” – you need to suck it up and introduce yourself around! Remember the part abut people being the reason you’re there? [See more of Debbie’s advice, including charming comics about being an introvert, at her website here.] Since most of us will be attending the conference alone (even if we traveled with a friend), it can get nerve racking. Wracking even. Take some “survive attending a conference alone” tips from themuse.com here. [Again, no affiliation]
- Be open to learning. If you’ve attended a hundred conferences before and find yourself saying “I already know this” at every session/workshop, then you’re preventing yourself from learning anything new. I mean, if you already know everything, why are you there? (<— remind me of this one, ok? I’m always the one rolling my eyes saying I knew that, when, hmm, maybe I didn’t)
- Prepare ahead of time. Review the schedule. Figure out why the keynoters are keynoters and not session presenters. Plan your day(s). Choose your workshops carefully so it’s not a last-minute choice made in haste. (They need to support your goal, remember?)
- Speaking of preparing…if you’re a true beginner, and are looking for basic tips on writing your first children’s book so you don’t feel out of place at your first conference, check out a video I made for the beginning picture book writer. It’s fun. Really. https://bitsykemper.com/2014/03/19/179/
I joke about lotion-ing up so you’re not remembered as the hand shaker with the rough skin. But bottom line: do your homework. And get ready to smile. You’re going to have a great time!