What happened the last time you attended a writing conference or workshop? Were all of your questions answered? Did you talk to writers or publishers who could influence or guide your career? Or were you too timid to raise your hand or approach anyone?
Signing up for a conference affords you more than what you can glean from listening to speakers. It's an opportunity to exchange information and ideas with other writers, editors and publishers as well as the presenters.
We each attend writing events with different expectations. Sometimes, to have your expectations met, you must reach out. Let's say that you're interested in writing stories for children's magazines and the presenter, a children's book author, didn't talk about that. You have choices. You can go home feeling disappointed or you can activate your networking skills. How? Raise your hand and ask a question during the question and answer portion of the presentation. Speak to the author after the presentation. Get her card and contact her later. Or talk to some of the other audience members. Since the topic is writing for children, you might find another attendee with the information you seek.
As with all forms of communication, there are standards. The following will guide you in honing your networking skills.
1. Network everywhere.
Whether you're seeking an editor for your manuscript, an expert for an article idea or a publisher for your novel, network any time—all the time. Talk about your project whenever anyone asks what you've been doing lately or what you're working on now. Mention it to your child's teacher, the butcher, your accountant, people you meet socially and especially other writers.
I landed a job rewriting brochures for a large water company and recreational area after mentioning to someone at a Toastmasters meeting that I'm a writer. I found a potential publisher for a client's manuscript while discussing the project with another author at a recent book festival. Last year, I told a writer friend over coffee that I wanted to break into her field—technical writing. She introduced me to an editor for a local technology-related magazine to whom I've since sold nearly a dozen articles.
2. Pay attention.
Some of the best networking opportunities at conferences and workshops occur among attendees rather than with the presenter. When you arrive, notice who's there. Listen to what they say to one another and during the question and answer portion of the program.
If you need a publisher for your mystery story, for example, and someone asks a question about promoting his recently published novel, make a note to talk to this person after the session. Or perhaps you're trying to find a child development expert to interview for an article and someone from the audience introduces herself as a child psychologist. You may want to discuss your project with her when the program is over.
3. Ask for what you want.
When you finally do approach someone with networking in mind, be clear and specific about the information you seek. Avoid all about questions. Instead of asking an author, "How do I get my book published?" ask what resources she would suggest to help you find a publisher and to better understand the submission process.
4. Listen and learn.
Listening is the most important part of networking. When you ask for information or an opinion, you won't always get the response you expect. It may be tempting to respond with, "But I already tried that." Or, "I know a successful author who didn't do it that way." But this is no time to argue and complain. Accept what you are given and move on. If you don't agree or the suggestion is outside your comfort zone, simply disregard it.
I've had many would-be writers ask me about the fast road to writing success. When I begin outlining the steps and pointing out the sacrifices necessary, the networker's eyes begin to glaze over. This isn't what he wanted to hear. But come Monday morning, when I go to work fulfilling my passion for writing, this never-will-be writer is in his corporate office envying me.
5. Expand your network.
Before walking away from a networking opportunity, request additional resources. Ask, "Is there anyone else I could talk to about this?" or, "What's the best book or Web site on the subject?"
6. Respect others.
Be succinct when requesting information or ideas. If you have additional questions after 10 or 15 minutes with this person, ask for a business card and permission to e-mail or call at a later date. If you desire a substantial amount of this person's time, ask what he charges for a consultation and then make an appointment.
7. Do your homework.
Never ask someone who has given you a resource, "Would you call him for me?" or, "Could you look that up?" Do your own legwork.
8. Express your gratitude.
Always thank the individual who has given his time and expertise. Thank him on the spot, of course, and also later. Give him a call, send a card or an e-mail to let him know how you used his information and how helpful it was. Also consider reciprocating in kind. If you run across something you think might be of value to the networkee, send it along.
Networking is no more difficult than engaging in small talk, but it can mean the difference between the success and failure of your project or career. Reach out. This is how you'll find the resources and information you need to achieve the success you desire.
This article appeared in the July 2002 issue of Writer's Digest.