by Carla Stewart
Whether this is your first conference or your twentieth, you have before you an opportunity to connect with people you’ve never known before or renew acquaintances with familiar faces and old friends. It’s all good. None of my ACFW conferences have been the same, but the one thing they’ve all had in common is meeting fascinating, dear people you’ll want to stay in touch with for life.
1. Beginnings. It all begins the moment you walk into the hotel lobby. Chances are there will be other attendees milling about trying to get their bearings. Almost at once you will begin connecting faces with names you’ve heard on the loop or via blogs. Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself or strike up a conversation.
Some starter questions for you:
“I’ve read your books and love your writing.”
“Are you with ACFW? What do you write?”
“Where’s the registration table?”
Chances are you will see these “first” faces many times over the next few days and will welcome a friendly smile. Once introduced, call people by name—it will make you both feel connected.
2. Meals. Several of the meal tables are hosted by agents and editors. If possible, find one that’s on your list of “dream agents” or an editor from a publishing house that you’re interested in. Generally you’ll get a chance to tell a little about yourself and meet other people with similar tastes. This is a good time to share biz cards with those at your table and do some important networking.
3. Appointments. Whether you’re having a paid critique or meeting with editors and agents, this is a great opportunity to present yourself as professional, willing to listen to what an expert says, and perhaps make a connection that will further your career in ways you never anticipated. These are probably the most fear-inducing encounters you will have. You can reduce the I’m-afraid-I-will-swallow-my-tongue jitters by being well-prepared with your pitch, praying before your appointment or asking a friend to pray with you. Then, just do it. Same rules apply as above: Ask questions. Call the author/editor/agent by name. Smile. Thank them for their time. The first time may be the hardest, but even veteran writers stutter and get sweaty palms.
4. Major tracks and workshops. The primary reason for these is, of course, to learn more about writing, but don’t be afraid to strike up conversations with those around you. If you’ve attended the same session, it’s likely you have a lot in common. Ask questions of the speakers. The old adage, “There are no stupid questions,” applies here. Others may have wondered the same thing.
5. Prayer room. This may be the single most important connection you make—the one with God. He will hear your cries of frustration, rejoice with you when good news comes, and calm your spirit. There are volunteers in the prayer room available to pray with you, but you may also choose to be alone for a quiet time of reflection.
6. Spontaneous prayer encounters. You don’t have to go to the prayer room to connect with the throne of grace. I’ve had several opportunities to pray with people while waiting for appointments, at mealtimes, during casual encounters. Praying with another person forges connections in meaningful ways that mere chit-chat doesn’t.
7. Volunteer. There are many opportunities to connect through giving a bit of your time. It can be as simple as collecting meal tickets at the door or working at the registration desk or something that requires more time: the bookstore, helping at the appointment desk, being a workshop introducer. There are many possibilities. If you’ve not signed up to volunteer this year, pay attention to what others are doing and promise yourself that next year you’ll do one or more of the jobs. The rewards are endless. Giving back is an excellent way to connect with conferees, speakers, and authors. You’ll be glad you offered.
8. Keep your antennae up. One of my favorite parts of a conference is being aware of people around me—the writer who looks lost or is sitting alone at a table. Smile. Ask if you can join him/her.
Strike up a conversation:
“You look nice in that sweater.”
“What sessions are you attending this afternoon?”
“Wow! You’re from Idaho. I’ve always wanted to visit your state.”
You may have reached out to someone who is lonely or afraid, perhaps frustrated and who knows? You may have found a new BFF.
9. Reconnecting. One of the joys of ACFW conferences is meeting people again. And again. And again. Catch up on what’s going on in your lives—recent contracts, getting an agent, frustrations, new babies, yada, yada. I love this part of the conference. Lobbies, restaurants, even the bar (which was also the snack area in Minneapolis) are great for more casual conversations, whether pre-conference, during break times, or late-late at night. Old and new friends and faculty alike mingle for fun connections.
10. Divine Appointments. These are snippets that happen without planning or intention. There’s no way to prepare for these special encounters that may change your life or be just the boost you need to make this your most meaningful conference to date. You might have a sudden Eureka moment about a writing concept you’ve been wrestling with. Or receive a word of encouragement at the perfect time. Be open. Expect to be surprised. And awed.
BONUS: Taking stock after the conference.
It’s always a bittersweet moment when the last strains of the conference waft through the air. I like to keep a list of new friends I’ve met and hopefully have exchanged business cards with. When I get home, I send a quick email to let them know I enjoyed our time together.
IMPORTANT: If you’ve met with an editor, agent, or special author either around the table or during an appointment, send them a thank you note. Always. If you didn’t get an address, an email is okay, but nothing says “I appreciate you” like a handwritten note. The sooner you do this, the better so that person will be more likely to remember you.
Take some time when you get home to organize your notes, update your address book, and bask in the afterglow of the conference. Send your requested proposals or follow-up thank-yous. Kick off your shoes and begin dreaming about next year’s conference.
Carla is a two-time Genesis winner and novelist. She received the coveted invitation to attend the Guideposts Writers Workshop in 2002. Her articles have appeared in Guideposts, Angels on Earth, and several smaller publications. Her first novel, Chasing Lilacs, releases in June 2010 from FaithWords (Hachette). You can find out more about Carla and follow her blog at http://www.carlastewart.com