Shhh! It’s a Conference Secret

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

It’s conference season and I’ve decided to share one of the best-kept conference secrets.

Here’s the secret: An appointment with an editor or agent is not the best way to connect.

Every time I go to a conference attendees are frantic to get on the appointment schedule. I wish I could convince them it’s not the best way to make an impression. Picture this: you finally get that longed-for appointment with your number one choice agent. Fifteen whole minutes after lunch. You stress about it from the time you get up in the morning. What to wear. What to bring. How to pitch. You go over your elevator pitch at least a dozen times.

You get to the appointment fifteen minutes early. The agent seems to be running late with the appointment ahead of you. Twenty of the worst minutes of your life pass and finally the agent smiles and signals for you to join her.

Just as you get settled someone else sidles up and turns to you, “Please excuse me I just have one thing to ask her and I’ll get out of your way.” Five minutes later the agent finally stands up to usher the clueless interloper away. The next two minutes she apologizes to you and asks if you can hold the fort for just a moment while she makes a quick pit stop.

She comes back and you have exactly one minute left. The next conferee slated to meet with this agent  is already seated nearby, looking at his watch.

She says, “Don’t worry about the time. My fault,” and she leaves to explain to the next appointment that she’s running late.

Finally. You are sitting across from her and you go into your spiel. “Picture a deep cavern. Twenty people caught in the—”

She puts her hand on your arm. “Let’s back up. Let’s introduce ourselves first.”

You sputter your name, wondering if barfing on the table would make you memorable. Could this be going any worse?

“And you are writing fiction? Nonfiction?”

See what I mean? Could any setting be less likely to show you at your best?

So then, what’s the secret?

The best way to connect at a conference is in a relaxed, natural setting. One of the reasons I love the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference is that we have ten meals with conferees– eight to a table. And that doesn’t count breakfasts. I get to meet with seventy different conferees in a convivial, relaxed setting. We table hosts make it a point to go around the table and get to know each person and gain an insight into who they are and what they are writing. Here’s where I tend to hand out my business cards with an invitation to submit.

Here are a few reasons why this is my preferred setting:

  • I get to meet the person in context. I see how they connect with others. I see them laugh and joke and encourage new writers. They are not thinking about pitching me but when they tell the table about their project and fellow conferees ask questions, I get a much fuller picture than I could ever get after doing a dozen-plus fifteen-minute appointments in a row.
  • Often a conferee will sit with a friend. They humbly begin telling us about themselves and the friend breaks in to say the wonderful things the conferee would never say himself. I get a much fuller picture.
  • The potential client gets to ask me questions and see how I react to others around me. Here’s another secret: this is a two-way street. Over a meal I can also be evaluated. The conferee gets to observe the “normal” me. Is this someone you could trust with your career?
  • I delight in seeing where God is already at work. I almost never fail to witness what will be lifelong connections between writers at my table. Watching this happening is humbling and a sign of great things to come.
  • And, besides meals, faculty members are sometimes just sitting around a fire pit or on a bench. Consider this an open invitation to sit down and have a word with them. If they wanted to be alone they’d be holed up in their rooms.

Remember something I’ve said often– it’s no secret– it will probably take more than one meeting to sign on the dotted line. Talk to any of my clients about how our partnership came about. I think you’ll be surprised.

So now, it’s your turn to share about appointments vs. informal meetings. Tell us your stories.