Friday, June 28, 2013

Getting Down to Business: Conference Etiquette

This month columnist Donna Alward is back with Getting Down To Business - and a few tips for attending conferences. **

It’s almost July – and you know what that means! Next month is RWA NATIONAL CONFERENCE!

Going to conference is really exciting but it can also be stressful, especially if you’re naturally introverted, like me. I know people laugh at that – ask my regular roomie Fiona Harper what happens when I cross the lobby (it takes a long time). But I also find crowds draining and I have a tendency to replay things I’ve said and wondered if I said something wrong or made a fool of myself.

I’m guessing I’m not alone in that so today I’m going to talk to you about things to do and not do at conference.

The first thing is…don’t go for the hard sell. If you’re at conference with the goal of getting interest in your book from editors or agents, do your hard pitching at pitch appointments! The rest of the time, go for the soft sell. Wait to be INVITED to share. So on the list of these don’ts are:

·         Don’t pitch your story in the elevator, even though it’s called an elevator pitch

·         Don’t pitch your story in the bathroom

·         Don’t pitch your story to the person seated next to you at lunch – unless specifically asked to do so

·         Don’t hijack someone else’s conversation in order to get noticed. You’ll get noticed but not for the right reasons

 On the list of do’s?

·         Do sign up for pitch appointments.

·         Do introduce yourself to agents and editors on your shortlist if the opportunity arises, and offer a polite hello

·         Do share a bit about yourself or book if it’s encouraged

For example: when I went to conference in 2009, I was looking for an agent. I went to some workshops where my “shortlist” agents were presenting, and afterwards approached them to say hello and tell them how much I enjoyed their workshop (and said nothing about my book). I ended up seated beside another at a luncheon, but it wasn’t until well over half-way through our chicken and a lot of small talk that she asked what I wrote and invited me to tell her about my next project.

In other words: Network. But don’t go for the hard sell. Later, when you send them a query, you can mention how nice it was to meet them at conference and how much you enjoyed their talk, etc. Nice query letter icebreaker!

Next up: personal maintenance. Get enough sleep. Nearly all of my conference “gaffs” have happened at the end of the day when I’ve been very tired and hit the “conference wall”. If you need to sneak off for an hour for a nap, do it. Or even just a quiet corner with something cold to drink. Make sure you eat – and you’d think there’s lots of time to eat but sometimes there’s not. Last year I had lunch at 11:30 and was booked right through from noon to nearly 10 p.m. I had a protein bar in my bag that I ate around 5, had a few appetizers at a reception around 8:30, and a slice of pizza at 9:30.  It was enough to keep me going even though I didn’t actually have dinner. And drink water.

Speaking of drinking: watch the alcohol. At risk of embarrassing myself, I was very excited to arrive in Anaheim last year, and to see everyone. But add in the 4 hour time diff… A few of us caught up at the hotel bar and I had a glass of wine. Seemed okay, so I ordered a second. The second glass of wine was too much.  Generally speaking, I try to keep it to one glass, especially if I’m tired.  The last thing you want to be is the clearly tipsy writer staggering through the lobby.

Dress appropriately. Basically: this is a professional conference. You don’t have to be in business attire, but biz casual works – comfortable skirts or dresses (I wear dresses a lot at conference!), cute shoes that won’t kill your feet, tops, capris, pants… I’ve even seen jeans which are fine – especially during the day when people are going to workshops and the like. Pair it with a cute top and funky jewelry and you’re good to go. Maybe dress it up a little if you’re pitching. Just…neat and tidy. We tend to live in yoga pants and sweatshirts. Take the opportunity to have a little more fun with your wardrobe. If you’re comfortable with it, dress a little fancier for RITA night or any evening parties you attend.

Be polite – and generous. You’re going to meet writers of every subgenre, and at every stage of their publishing journey. Smile a lot. Be accepting. As a rule, we romance writers are like that anyway. But I remember twice now meeting people who were well-known and being severely disappointed at how unapproachable they were. You don’t have to give everyone a hug, but a smile and a handshake and an offer to share a space during a crowded breakfast buffet makes you a nice person to know.

I know I’ve done and said things I’ve regretted during conference week, however well-intentioned. We ALL do, and as a rule and as a group we’re all pretty forgiving.  At conference you’re among friends, but you also want to be professional. Be warm, be yourself, be courteous, and the rest will take care of itself.

Donna’s current release is A COWBOY TO COME HOME TO, her fourth book in her Cadence Creek series. Catch up with her at her website at

** first appeared in Lovelights newsletter, June 2013


  1. Thanks for the tips, Donna - I've taken notes!

  2. Donna is the right person to give this advice (and it's perfect advice). I met her at a conference, and she is friendly and charming and generous. She made exactly the right impression--so much so that I'm hoping I'll meet up with her and have a chance to enjoy her company at another conference!

  3. Oh Terry, thank you for that. You know you initiated me into the scary world of conferences and I've never forgotten! I so wish I could go this year! Next year though!