If there’s anything scarier than public speaking, it’s private speaking. Not the quiet conversations you have with friends but the prospect of being thrown into a room of strangers and having to get out with any shred of dignity intact. Some people have no trouble making new friends, but introverted and anti-social writers seem to have a harder time than average. The normal strategies of hiding behind a potted plant all evening or orbiting the room clutching a beverage like a life-ring while refusing to make eye contact may leave you feeling like you survived but somehow missed out on opportunities.
With the Colorado Gold Conference right around the corner, now is the time to address the burning question.
How do people do that schmooze thing without feeling icky?
It takes a just bit of mental jujitsu.
First, you have to understand that everybody in the room is there for the same reason. You’re there because you’re passionate enough about the subject matter to have found the time and resources to attend. Just by being there, you’ve got common ground with every other attendee.
Second, you need to check your excuses at the door. Even introverts can get satisfaction from sharing ideas they’re passionate about. The “I’ve got nothing to talk about” excuse and the “Who’d want to talk to me?” excuse and the "They're all famous!" excuse all need to be left at the door.
Third, the hardest room is the first one. Not everybody in the room is a first timer, but everybody in that room was a first timer once. Most of them remember it. Newcomers are always welcome. Remember that when it's your second room. If nothing else, you'll have someone to talk to.
A few simple ideas can help even the shyest individual over the threshold.
Have a goal or two.
I believe too many people struggle because they have goals that place too much emphasis on measurable return on investment. They want to pitch their stories to three agents or get an acquisition editor to request a manuscript. While those are certainly valid goals, for somebody trying to learn the art of the schmooze these goals put Olympic-sized pressure on Wading Pool skills.
My goals for every convention I attend — writer oriented, fan oriented, whatever — are always the same. Meet three interesting people and take home one actionable idea. I don’t limit myself to what I think “interesting” means or what kind of action I want to take. Sometimes I meet interesting people in the lobby or sitting beside me in the audience at a panel. Sometimes the ideas are time management or dealing with stress. Occasionally I learn about new tools, gain insight into new techniques, or find writers I want to learn more about. I can’t achieve any of those goals unless I get out there and meet people.
Listen more than you talk.
You'll often find yourself forced into potentially awkward situations at organized dinners. Simple courtesy can ease the conversation into starting on its own. Take a seat, smile at the person on your left/right, offer your hand, and say, “Hi, I’m Nathan.” If nothing else, they'll look at you funny unless you use your own name. Typically, that triggers a response around the table. This also works at meet-and-greet events, BarCons, session audiences, and other situations where you’re in a room full of strangers all wearing the same badges. If the conversation lags, you can always ask “Who came the farthest to get here?” Chances are nobody will know so you’ll have to compare notes. After that the conversations generally sort themselves out.
The thing about listening is that you always have something to do. If you’re focused on listening, you’re not thinking about what to do with your hands or whether your hair is sticking out at an odd angle. You’re thinking about what the other person is saying and maybe asking questions about it. Listening has the added advantage of making you seem smart, even when you don’t think you are. Do it regularly, and the odds are good that you’ll become smarter, too.
There will always be somebody who’s off to the side, out of the path, and standing alone. The art of the schmooze is making sure you’re not that person. Find the wallflower or the person standing or sitting alone and introduce yourself. You’ll each find you have a lot in common and both of you will be able to practice the art.
What about when you’re trying to join a conversation that’s already going on? A lot of people feel like they might be intruding if the conversation is already in full swing. Sometimes you might be, but more typically, there’s always room for one more smiling face. Stepping into the gap—often literally—with a smile and a nod usually works. If the conversation doesn’t stop, chances are you’re just as welcome as anybody else. This is a great opportunity for you to practice listening. Asking a pertinent question at the next pause in the festivities works very well to cement your place in the conversation.
Awkward silence is awkward, but a little preparation can push awkwardness to the backseat. Questions like “So, what are you reading these days?” or “How are you dealing with social media?” often yield interesting responses. A bit of noodling time with your favorite professional online sources can add currency to your conversation as well. Finally, when awkward just won’t leave, have an exit line of your own ready. A simple “Nice to meet you. I need to circulate a little. Enjoy the convention” lets you wander off without feeling like you’ve stepped on anybody’s puppy. You can change it up with “I need another drink” or “I need to find my partner.” Even “I need to find the little writer’s room” can give you the exit you need without falling into TMI.
That probably sounds a bit like “Hey, they’ll only hang you once. Enjoy the gallows.” This is one place where you actually can “fake it til you make it.” Smile at people. Meet their eyes and nod. Extend a hand and introduce yourself. Before you know it, that person you met in the first session on the first day will show up and you can compare notes. Or the person you had breakfast with will invite you to eat dinner with them. Take a few selfies with other attendees. Ask for cards from interesting people. By the time you have to leave, you’ll find you’ve actually had more fun than you thought.
After all, these people all cared enough to arrange their lives to be in that space with you, even when they didn’t know you’d be there. The least you can do is make it worth their while.
Image credit: ICANN Photos 1361
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