Tackling Pre-Conference Anxieties For Worried Writers
by Daniel Parsons
Conferences like the London Book Fair, SPS Live or 20Books Vegas can be a scary prospect for even the most successful writers. Often large and well-publicised, these events have stages, crowds, unfamiliar floor plans, and lots of people you’ll want to impress. For many introverted authors (that’s most of us), that sounds like a nightmare.
The thought of it alone spawns a host of ugly insecurities. Overcoming them, however, can mean exposing yourself to life-changing career opportunities.
Today on the SPF blog, we will go through a list of common concerns many authors face before writers’ conferences and unpick the rationale behind them. The idea is to expose them as false fears (which they almost always are) and ease your anxiety with simple logic, leaving you to build your dream career unhindered.
“I CAN’T MEET STRANGERS I MET ONLINE!”
I know. Either you were warned about this as a child or you’ve warned children yourself. Hear me out. For kids, “don’t meet strangers from the internet” is good advice. The internet is full of weirdos. As an adult, though, there are still dangers but the rules aren’t so straightforward.
This suggestion might upset your ingrained beliefs but meeting social media pals is now the networking norm. While it’s easy to find like-minded collaborators online, digital conversations can never fast-track emotional bonds like face-to-face interactions, so real-world meetings are essential if you want to make an impact.
Common sense should prevail but it is possible to stay safe and meet new professional friends. As long as you meet in a public place and tell your friends or family where you will be, there shouldn’t be a problem. And if you’re still uncomfortable meeting online contacts then you do have one last trick at your disposal: take a friend.
“I CAN’T DO THIS; I’M AN INTROVERT!”
Most people don’t like meeting anyone new. However, even the shyest writer can act in an extroverted capacity. It just takes practice. I’m a prime example of that, having grown up a shy teenager who developed confidence by intentionally immersing myself in scary social situations. Over time, doing so teaches you to manage your fear. Don’t get me wrong; I still get nervous if I have to talk in front of a crowd but not to the same extent.
You might attend your first writers’ conference or group meetup with butterflies and nausea. But those feelings won’t last once you take a breath and get talking. In many cases, lone creatives find that they’re more capable of holding a conversation than they thought. Also, remember that it’s not solely your responsibility to carry a conversation. As nobody wants an awkward chat, particularly while networking, there will always be someone to pick up the slack if you flounder.
“EVERYONE ELSE IS SO MUCH MORE CONFIDENT!”
They’re not. Firstly, while talking to an author-friend during downtime at a convention in spring 2019, she referred to me as “quite charismatic.” This compliment, though flattering, caught me by surprise because, in everyday life, I’m quiet. I never liked performing, my hands sweat whenever I approach someone I deem important, and I overthink jokes. However, it obviously doesn’t show because, while I’ve been fretting, my fellow authors have been so focused on their slipups that they haven’t noticed mine.
In fact, those who appear to have no anxiety struggles at all, who can be found buying drinks or chatting passionately about their adventures over a business brunch, have later admitted to being the most extreme worriers. Many undergo a regimen of mental trials before conventions – shaking, nausea, pacing. It’s a complete contrast to their confident networking personas.
This inner struggle is more commonplace than you might expect. Some authors buy drinks, others tell edgy jokes they later regret, and many only talk to one person at a time. Emotional armour comes in different forms. You can’t always tell exactly what insecurity attendees are hiding but you can be sure of one thing: not everyone is as confident as they would like you to believe.
“EVERYONE ELSE IS SO MUCH BETTER!”
Imposter syndrome is omnipresent among writers. Simply put, it’s the belief that you’re not as good as your peers, don’t deserve your success and that, one day, you will be found out. For writers, it manifests as doubts in writing or marketing expertise. They get so caught up with their shortfalls that they fail to realise the knowledge they’ve acquired with experience. In reality, many “imposters” are more capable than they think.
On a panel at New York’s 2018 ThrillerFest, R. L. Stine, Lee Child, Clive Cussler and a panel of others talked about this issue at length. Between them, they’d hit the New York Times bestseller list dozens of time, won multiple awards and sold over 600 million books. Yet, when asked about self-doubt, their answers were unanimous:
“Even after making the bestseller lists so many times, I feel like a fraud.”
That line came from Sandra Brown who had, at the time, penned 36 New York Times bestselling romantic suspense novels. She definitely wasn’t a fraud but that didn’t stop her brain maintaining the lie. A good lesson to take away here is that most people feel like frauds, so your best strategy is to accept this feeling and keep working regardless.
“WHAT IF THEY DON’T LIKE ME?”
Not everyone will get your humour or agree with your views. Knowing this won’t make a personal rejection easier but it will give you the wisdom to try again undeterred. When it comes to networking, it’s a numbers game because, inevitably, you will make a good impression on someone.
Of course, you can improve your success rate by being professional and avoiding controversial topics to limit the risk of offending new acquaintances. Being funny can make you stand out but, if you’re not sure a joke will land well, let it go unsaid. There’s nothing wrong with simply being known as polite because, while people like to laugh, they prefer to make others laugh. One of the best things you can do is listen and riff off the humour of others.
This article isn’t meant to strip you of your personality: it’s to minimise your potential for self-sabotage. If you want to make a risky joke, go for it. Likewise, if choosing your words carefully doesn’t sit well with you, you could become a Marmite® personality, loved by some but hated by others. It’s a bold tactic and is sure to polarise acquaintances but will ensure you are remembered.
Whatever strategy you choose, just remember that most people want to like you. Keeping that in mind means you start every conversation on good terms.
“WHAT IF MY ONLINE FRIENDS DON’T RECOGNISE ME?”
The faces you encounter at physical gatherings often don’t match those you see on social media. Some active members will be too busy to attend. Others will look different to their profile pictures. A few might even be completely new, or work via pen names and alter-egos.
As a result, it’s best to be polite and assume nobody knows anyone when visiting venues. Introduce yourself and ask new people their names even if you think you know them. That way, nobody is left name-dodging and surreptitiously glancing at your ID badge to work out who you are. Something short like this will do:
“Hi, Sarah. Good to see you. Dan Parsons. We met last year at the Rhondda Book Fair.”
Offering your name and where you last spoke instantly stops your contact from scrambling to place you. At the very least, it allows them to pretend to remember you and avoid embarrassment. As long as you know how to avoid these social banana skins, being a stranger can be easily overcome. Whether or not they know you to begin with doesn’t really matter. What matters most is ensuring they know, like and trust you after you’ve met.
“WHAT IF I GET OVERWHELMED?”
Most people get overwhelmed at events, particularly when they last several days. Tackling an unfamiliar environment, surrounded by hundreds of visitors, ads everywhere, will usually leave you with a headache, a sore throat and aching feet. And there are never enough chairs!
Inevitably, this means you won’t talk to everyone you planned to meet. The first time you visit an event, you might not manage any meaningful conversations. But that’s okay. A reputation isn’t built in a day and, if this is your first conference, not capitalising on every opportunity is understandable. Knowing how to start conversations and where you can rest will come with experience.
If you’re new to conferences, cut yourself some slack. Set reasonable expectations and celebrate small victories. Expect to get lost and tired. All you need to do the first time you visit a new venue is meet at least one person you didn’t know before that day. That conversation might not change your life but it is progress, and progress compounds over time.
Hopefully, you should now be at ease and open to the wonderful possibilities that come with networking. Follow all of the advice in this post and you will eventually see conferences as exciting get-togethers, full of good friends and exhilarating business opportunities. If you want to get started, feel free to say hello to me or any of the SPF team at the London Book Fair this year. We’d love to be your first networking conquest!
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