Attending a literary event can be very valuable, but it can also be daunting. We’ve talked before about how you can prepare so you get the most out of attending a writers’ festival. But chances are, whether you’re going as a panellist or to listen to talks, you will feel some apprehension when you turn up.
Anyone who suffers from shyness or anxiety knows that advice like “just talk to someone” isn’t very helpful. Here we offer some practical tips to help you get over your initial reticence and get the most out of your upcoming event.
Practise small talk
Squashing shyness is really about taking the first step. Even the most introverted people will open up once they break the ice. The moment you find a connection or common interest with someone, it immediately makes it easier to start talking.
Introverts often dislike small talk. But it is essential in your arsenal to break down conversational barriers. If you’re someone who hates small talk, think of it a different way. Think of it as the piercing arrow that will let in a shaft of light. Or as the first chip at a marble slab. Think of it in whatever poetic way will help you to overcome your hatred.
It’s not small talk, it’s art.
The best small talk introduces a common theme and then asks a question. Picture yourself at an event. What are some opportunities that might come up for chatting with someone nearby? Here are some examples:
Before an author Q&A: “I’m really looking forward to this session. Have you read her latest book?”
Before a panel discussion: “I’m really interested in this topic but I don’t know any of the panellists. Do you?”
Before a workshop: “This is my first poetry workshop and I’m so nervous. Have you done one of these before?”
You don’t have to literally practise these sentences at home (unless you find that helpful). But at the event, actively think of the types of conversations you could start. Remember, the other person will almost certainly be glad you started talking to them!
Food is your friend
With small talk, food is your friend. Hanging around the coffee or food table gives plenty of opportunities to break the ice. Again, introverts often think that small talk is inane. Ugh, do I have to talk about the weather? But it’s just an opening volley, one that can open up other possibilities.
“Oh thank goodness, there’s coffee. I haven’t had one today. Is it good?”
“Those cakes look delicious. Have you tried one yet?”
No, it’s not Oscar Wilde. But it’s a start. And if you have nothing further to say to each other, well, just go and get another cake.
Hang out in the bookstore
Most literary events will have a bookstore in the venue. This is a great place to withdraw to and find some comfort. But it’s also an opportunity to find like-minded people. We’ve all been in a situation where we can’t help telling someone that that book is terrible or that author is brilliant. Where better than the bookshop to bump into someone who loves a writer as much as you do?
And if you’re attending as a guest, the bookshop will give you an opportunity to meet your readers. Your book will be there in all its glory. Go stand near the shelf. Offer to sign it for anyone who buys it. They will be thrilled to have met you.
Find the quiet space
As well as a bookstore, most events these days will have a quiet space or business centre. Find out where this is and allow yourself to use it. Knowing that you can withdraw to somewhere quiet to collect your thoughts, send a text message, or squash some Angry Birds will make you feel more comfortable out in the main area.
Having said that, set yourself some rules. You don’t want to spend the whole conference in the quiet room. Treat it as a place to reset yourself – maybe in between conversations or after a short interaction. Introverts in particular feel a need to reset, and that’s just fine. You know what you need. Know that that safety net is there. Just limit yourself to a few visits during the day.
Talk to the organisers
At the event, find the organisers and volunteers and ask any questions you have. They are keen to run a successful event and want to hear from you.
If there is no designated quiet area, ask them where else you could go for some peace. Find out if there are any structured networking events that they can recommend. Don’t be afraid to let them know if anxiety is a real concern for you. They might be able to pair you up with a buddy or recommend a quiet cafe.
Organisers want guests to have a good time. Whether that’s providing gluten-free options at lunch or hosting smaller events throughout the day, your comfort is their concern.
Sign up for a workshop
One cause of anxiety is we feel that we have to break the ice with the whole room. You don’t! You don’t have to meet with all 800 people in the auditorium. Just connect with one or two people, and more will follow.
Workshops are a great way to find your first few connections. They will have fewer people and be held in smaller spaces. You might be organised in groups around a desk or seated in a U-shape so it will be less intimidating to talk to the people in your group. You’re all there to learn something and you’re in it together.
Some events have Find Your Tribe meetups where people who are interested in a particular sub-topic or genre are encouraged to get together. These are less terrifying than simply going to the designated ‘networking area’ where you don’t know a soul. At a Find Your Tribe, you’ll already know that everybody else there is interested in historical fantasy fiction, for example, or memoir writing. There is no ice to break; it has been broken for you.
Forget about the jerks
Will there be one or two jerks who seem to dominate the whole conversation? Yes, probably. But they are not your problem. You don’t want to talk to them.
Instead, seek out people like you. They’ll be easy to find – they’re the 99% of people who aren’t jerks.
Like we said before, you don’t have to break the ice with the whole room and you don’t have to speak to every attendee. Forget about the loud know-it-alls and focus instead on everyone else.
Dress for success
Before you walk out the door on your way to your event, make sure you are dressed for success. That doesn’t mean Vera Wang and Gucci. You don’t have to wear a suit or literary blazer. Wear what makes you comfortable.
If you are constantly worried that your trousers are too tight or your shoes are pinching, then you can’t relax. And if you can’t relax, you’ll only escalate your nervousness. Choose an outfit that you know you feel good in. Jeans and a Star Wars t-shirt? No problem. A flamboyant polka dot dress that makes you feel pretty? Enjoy. A suit of solemn black? Go nuts.
Many a conversation has started by complimenting someone’s shoes or earrings. So if you have a favourite accessory, give it a whirl. And don’t forget to return the compliment. If you see someone with a Frida Kahlo t-shirt, tell them how much you love her work. Make a Frodo reference if someone has a Lord of the Rings notebook.
When you actively look for connections with people, you will find them.
If you attended a literary event and don’t feel like you managed to overcome your anxiety, that’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up about it. And more importantly, don’t let it put you off.
As Samuel Becket said, Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
The one thing you cannot do is hesitate about the next event. Promise yourself you will go again. Commit to it. And keep going. You will get better at squashing your shyness and you will get braver about talking to people.
You just need to take the first step.