In writing up my panel notes for LTUE I become very aware of how much simply can not be conveyed in a text-only medium. This panel was a two-hour interactive lecture run by Mary Robinette Kowal and me. There is real power in a live lecture. It allows a group of people to build a shared context about a topic. A stray comment at the beginning of the panel would be referred to later in a way that would illustrate a point or provoke shared laughter. Trying to capture that would require paragraphs of exposition to describe exactly how tone of voice, facial expression, and body language conveyed a message which is not at all apparent in the words alone. This is particularly true of the segment of lecture where we were discussing body language. Demonstration can show in seconds what description takes a long time to say. All of which illustrates exactly why having in-person meetings with other professionals in your field can be so incredibly valuable. Most of the information here was gleaned from other professionals in conversations both on and offline.
In our presentation Mary and I began by talking about the skills necessary to help these in-person interactions go smoothly. We are both of the opinion that these skills can be learned by anyone at any stage of life. Mary picked up many of them from her mother as a child since her mother worked in a field where schmoozing was necessary. I carefully went out an acquired them when I finally realized that depending upon my husband Howard in all social situations would sometimes leave me floating in deep water without a life preserver. I chose to learn how to make conversation with strangers rather than to stay safe at home. In the second half of the discussion, Mary and I talked about how these same skills translate online and into deliberately self-promotional venues.
Because I can’t properly convey the flow of conversation and story which wrapped around these topics, I’m going to have to resort to a bullet-pointed list. I’ll put in illustrative stories where I can remember them and where I can make them short. I fear this post is doomed to be long. Each section ended with a Q&A session. I don’t have a record of those questions and answers.
Conversations and Introductions
- Remember that everyone is interesting. More importantly, the person you are talking to is more interesting than you are. Try to make sure that the bulk of a conversation is focused on other people, their interests, their work, etc. The sneaky truth about this is that people love to talk about their interests, which means conversing with you will make them happy and will make them believe you to be interesting. It is perfectly acceptable to try to steer a discussion of the other person’s interests into an area where you can also be interested. IE: If the person you are talking about loves cars and you love design, steer the conversation into the aesthetic design of cars.
- Have some standard conversation openers. Asking someone where they are from can be too personal, asking them where they arrived from opens up a conversation about travel. If you’re at a shared event like a convention, ask them about panels they’ve seen. Ask them what they’ve been working on lately. Complement an article of clothing such as a watch or jacket. Many of these things have stories attached. As the conversation continues, pay attention to small details which can be used to redirect a conversation or to fill a lull. IE: The person says they got their bracelet in New Mexico, you can jump back to that to mention that you’ve also been to New Mexico and found the weather there stunningly hot, but the landscape gorgeous. And the conversation can continue from there.
- Rehearsed stories. Just as there are standard conversation openers, there are some fairly standard questions you can expect to be asked. Know what you answers are going to be ahead of time. In particular, be prepared to answer the question “what have you be working on.” (I’ll admit to a massive fail here. I arrived at LTUE, was asked that question and completely blanked on what to say.) It is okay to even prepare an amusing anecdote, just be aware that you may not get to deliver it if the conversation goes a different way. Also be aware that because the same questions get asked over and over, you may find yourself in the uncomfortable situation of not knowing if you’ve already told this story to this group of people.
- Provide context. It is a great kindness to others if you manage to include in the first few sentences of conversation where you’ve met before and when. “Hi Mary, it is good to see you. I haven’t seen you since Worldcon last August when we talked about wombats.” This provides enough memory tags for Mary to locate the memory of you. Alternately, if Mary does not remember you, it provides enough information for the two of you to have a lovely conversation anyway.
- Have a change of topic prepared. If you’ve been talking about your own work, be ready to change the topic off of yourself. This is where that attention to the bracelet purchased in New Mexico gives you a chance to redirect the conversation. Being prepared to change the subject means that you are ready to come to the rescue should something awkward happen.
- Performing introductions. When introducing two people you know, it is a kindness to them to include, along with their names, two pieces of information which either provide context or potential points of common interest.
- Tag Teaming. Having a wing-man at professional events is incredibly helpful. You can introduce each other, speak glowingly of each other’s work (thus dodging the “don’t talk too much about yourself” stricture), and help each other escape should a social escape become necessary.
- Promote the work of others. It gives you wonderful topics of conversation. It is a gift to those whose work you’re promoting. It makes you classy.
- Be yourself. It may take you a while to figure out who “yourself” is in a professional setting, that is okay. The key is to find your own way of relating rather than believing you have to do things the way someone else does.
- The conversational dismount. This is a close relative to having a change of subject prepared. Be ready to close a conversation and walk away. If the other person does not want the conversation to end, they will ask a question, make a comment, or otherwise extend the conversation. It is better to leave them wanting more. This is particularly true of agents and editors with whom you hope to someday work. Some good dismounts: “It was lovely seeing you, I hope we run into each other again.” “Thank you for your time, I enjoyed talking with you.”
This is the section that suffers most from translation to text. Mary used her puppeteer training to explain and demonstrate. I’ll just give some generalized information.
- Aggressive movement. This is any movement toward something. It can include turning to face something. It indicates engagement or interest.
- Regressive movement. This is any movement away. It indicates that the person wants to detach or distance.
- There is also open posture, which indicates engagement and closed posture which indicates disengagement.
The key here is to pay attention to the body expressions of the people you are talking to. If you see regressive movements or closed posture, dismount the conversation gracefully. It may have nothing at all to do with you or with what you were saying. They may have an appointment, need to go to the bathroom, or just feel tired. By walking away you indicated respect and that person will be quite willing to talk to you again at some other time.
This section included a lot of discussion and demonstration about how to enter a conversation, what to do about those who lurk physically, and solutions to the invasion of personal space. It is okay to lie if someone breaks the social compact. If you’ve indicated both by body motion and by conversational dismount phrases that you’re ready to be done talking, but the other person still is not letting go, then make something up and exit. “I’m sorry. I have an appointment.”
Personal Presentation and Basic Marketing
- Dress for the job you want. This includes both your actual dress and grooming and your web presence. If you want to be a full-time writer then your personal presentation both online and in person should indicate that you are professional. This does not exclude quirkiness and individuality. Some writers dress in costumes, have pink hair, or wear Hawaiian shirts. Just be aware of the impression you are giving. You do not want to seem clueless or unreliable.
- Express confidence and remember the wonder. When conversation does turn to a point where you are describing your own work, make sure you talk about it with enthusiasm. This is hard. Very often writers will offer up their work as if it is a dead mouse, or something else embarrassing. “I have a story in Asimov’s, but it isn’t very good. I made a mistake in the math.” Stop and remember how you felt writing the story. Think of the cool central idea. Then create a rehearsed conversational statement about that. “I have a story in Asimov’s! It is about living rainbows.” Sharing your excitement and enthusiasm allows your listeners to feel sympathy and interest. It is hard for someone else to be interested in something which you are treating as embarrassing.
- Tailor your message to your audience. Agents have different interests than readers. For both you’re hoping to convince them to read your work. The agent wants indications of solid writing and marketability. A reader you’ll wants to know what kind of a reading experience they’ll have. An editor wants to know all the twists and turns. A reader doesn’t want spoilers.
- Repeat your marketing. People need to see something three times before they remember it. They need to see it seven times before they’ll buy. This is true both when you have a physical object to sell, or just if you want to be remembered by your dream agent. So if you’re at an event and want to leave with an agent or editor remembering you, you’re better served by three brief conversations than a single long one. (From a marketing perspective, it would make much more sense for me to break this giant post into a dozen small ones. It would probably be easier for readers to absorb information and it would keep them coming back to my site. I’ve decided not to do that because I want to clear my mind for other things.)
- Give out useful information. This goes along with praising the work of others and making sure not to talk about yourself too much. It is also particularly true online. When you give out useful information, people link to you. Mary wrote an excellent post about this exact topic. In fact it was the post from which we drew lots of the topics discussed during the presentation. Linked from that post are all of Mary’s Debut Author lessons, which are also worth a read. (I know that after reading 1800 words of panel notes you totally wanted MORE reading, but there you go. Enough to keep you busy for quite a while.)
- It is okay to have multiple motivations. When attending a conference and meeting people, or joining a forum online, it is okay if part of your motivation for doing so is to promote your work. This is actually expected. The key is to make sure that it is not your only motivation. You should also expect other people to have multiple motivations for wanting to talk with you.
- Know the community. There are dozens of social media sites out there and they all have their hidden rules and social norms. Posting ten times in an hour is expected on twitter, it is annoying in facebook or Google+. Each community has its strengths and weaknesses. Each has a different appeal. Use the ones which feel comfortable to you, skip the ones that don’t. Give popular social media a fair shot before deciding they are not useful to you. Twitter seemed ridiculous at first glance and has turned out to be a social media powerhouse.
- Share wisely. When you share things with your social media streams be sure to put something of yourself into the things you send. Make sure that your social media stream does not turn into noise for the people reading it. You can not fascinate everyone. People will follow and unfollow, don’t take it personally.
All of the social skills discussed in the first three sections can be applied online. The conversations are just virtual instead of in person. As a fun exercise you can pick a skill and pick a venue on the internet and then think how the two relate to each other.
Running a Promotional Push
We reached this topic with a mere ten minutes left to our two hours. It is a topic large enough to be a class all by itself. Perhaps I’ll write up a blog post devoted specifically to it, but not today. Instead I’ll just reiterate what I told the class:
The most important thing you can know about promoting your work is to alternate periods of push with lulls. Link your push to an event, a sale, an award season. Send out your message 3-7 times in 3-7 ways, then give it a rest. The rest is critical. It means that you do not turn into noise for everyone around you. More important it gives you space to relax, write more things, and rediscover your life balance.
With that, our time was up and Mary had to dash away for a reading. I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this class. The audience was great. As a result of Mary’s knowledge, and audience questions, I learned a lot. Which brings up a last point I want to make to those who feel overwhelmed by everything above.
We’re all still learning. Even people who have been schmoozing for decades are still learning and adapting. You don’t have to get everything right all at once. Just pick one or two things to practice until they become as natural as walking. Then you can work on something else. Bit by bit we are all becoming who we want to be.