Monday, October 19, 2015

Tips for thriving in a room full of strangers

HALLIE EPHRON: In the wake of Bouchercon -- for those of you who've never been, it's the BIG KAHUNA of mystery conferences with thousands of attendees -- I am remembering the first Bouchercon I attended. I felt SO out of it. I'd come there to meet people, but instead I clung to my wine glass like a life raft and stuck to the two or three people I knew. I was terrified.

It felt like the time I went to the wedding of a friend whose family and friends were very nice and welcoming, but all of them were chattering away to one another in Chinese. I drifted off into the corner and cursed my husband for being late, and nibbled on hors d'oeuvres, and tried not to look self-conscious. I was halfway through a bau (a barbecued pork dumpling) when I realize I was eating the paper wrapper.

Since my first Bouchercon, it's much easier for me to find my sea legs in a crowd of strangers. A tip: volunteer! It's so easy to look like you know what you're doing when you have something to do. Like stuffing swag bags, or manning the registration table... and you meet people doing it.

Another one to practice: introduce yourself! And when you see someone you think you've met but you don't remember their name, introduce yourself and apologize for forgetting their name. They've probably forgotten yours, too, or possibly even that they ever met you, and maybe they didn't, but it won't matter.

Edge your way into a group. The key to making new connections is to be genuinely interested in other people.

And, oh yeah, don't drink too much. After the first glass of wine I just have the bartender top it off with club soda and an ice cube.

So, fellow Reds, what tips can you offer about thriving in a room of strangers?

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: One of the many nice things about conventions like Bouchercon or readings is that a great opening question is, "What have you read lately that you absolutely love?" We already have the established mutual interest of books, and it's personal (one's taste in books) and genuine — without being tooooooo personal. And you get great book recommendations that way!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Great tips, Hallie and Susan! (And I was completely terrified at my first B'con, too.) But there are so many great conversation openers for introducing yourself at Bouchercon.

"Are you having a good time?"
"What's been your favorite experience so far?"
"What do you like to read?"
Or, "What do you write?"

I said this on the last night to a guy I hadn't seen before (late in the conference and he wasn't wearing a name tag.) It turned out he was a debut author whose editor is the editor who recommended my agent to me more than twenty years ago. AND the editor was there and I got to give him a big hug. That was one of MY best experiences of the conference.

LUCY BURDETTE: I still stink at working a crowd:(.

I love talking with people and have no problems with one on ones or small groups, but a big group simply reduces me to Junior High School shyness. But those are all good ideas, and I swear next time I'll do better!

RHYS BOWEN: I remember my first Bouchercon too! I knew two people. I wasn't talking to one of them when a group came up to join us. They were going to dinner and one of the men invited me to join them. But I had already arranged to meet the other person I knew so I thanked him but said I had other plans.

As they walked away someone said to me, "You just turned down Jeffrey Deaver?"

Oh no.

Over the years I've found people love to talk about themselves. If I see someone standing alone or left out I ask about where they are from, which panels they have enjoyed, if they've found any good restaurants in town. It really pays to be friendly too. Another author introduced me to my wonderful agent as well.

Now I find the room sort of works itself.
Hank and Deb and I sat to have a private chat at the Sheraton last week and within seconds people kept joining us until we had this big group. 

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Yes, I loved that, Rhys! So lovely to see you both.  And I treasure it, you know? Agreed, the room sort of works itself, that's a great way of putting it! And It's so--beautiful. Sorry to be sappy, but it is.

My first Bouchercon,  I  hid in my room. Just--hid. And had room service. And then I told myself--hey, dummy, you're here. You might as well be HERE. Now I never remember my room number, because I'm never there! Lovely!

My hint--I try to remember that no matter how shy and hesitant I am, there's someone else who feels even more that way . And what if I can make them have a better time?

I say to myself: MINGLE! And LISTEN.  And introduce people to each other. This is our one chance to be in the world, you know? Might as well have fun--since it our decision.

And yes, one glass of wine, then water. (Usually, actually, no wine. Until later.)

It's still intimidating. But's like a treasure hunt.

HALLIE: So now we turn it over to you... what are your hard-earned tips for making yourself and others comfortable in a crowd of strangers?


  1. Oh, aside from the "volunteer" one, I am so not good at any of these [except perhaps "What have you read lately that you absolutely love?"] . . . but these sound like great ideas to keep someone from doing the wallflower thing.

  2. All great tips. When I go to panels I like to sit next to someone I don't know and introduce myself. Ask them, "writer or reader?" Find out who they like to read, and so on.

    At this year's Bouchercon I was supposed to meet a friend for dinner but couldn't find her at the reception (which ran out of food in the first ten minutes). A group I'd started chatting with asked if I'd like to join them for dinner and I did. My friend later connected and joined us, too. All good, and I made three new reader friends!

  3. I grew up in the South, so if I don't know the person, I am regionally obligated to ask, "Where are you from?" From there, the conversation writes itself. Only try this if you are interested in hearing someone's life story.

  4. My office chair looks just like that, too, Hallie! Ramona, I love where are you from! And yes, I am genuinely interested…:-). It always reveals some small world-ish thing, doesn't it? Some connection you might never otherwise have known!
    The other thing that is somewhat problematic, always, is how do you extricate yourself from the conversation? Sometimes I say: " OK! I promised myself I'm going to mingle! So here I go… " People seem to understand that, don't you think?

  5. Ramona, I love your Southern manners!

    Hank, I do think people understand when you have to mingle. It's all an ebb and flow.

  6. Edith, it's so great when that works out.
    Ramona, I do that, too. And, as Hank says, sometimes you open Pandora's box.
    Because the other thing that's important is, once you've started the conversation, don't monopolize it!
    And I love that recommendation, introduce people to each other. That makes it easier to move on to the next encounter.

  7. My tip is to smile a lot.

    This year was my first B'con, and I smiled at hundreds of people and most everyone smiled back. That made me feel less overwhelmed. I knew a fair number of folks in attendance. Bumping into them was so nice. I also had the chance to meet a couple of Reds (Deborah and Susan) for the first time, which was lovely.

  8. I think that those of us who are introverts by nature will always have this problem, even when we feel "at home."

    I really am a pretty shy person, but you wouldn't know it from watching me at Bouchercon. But that doesn't mean it does not take effort. That pressure to always be "on" is part of what makes Bouchercon (and all cons) so draining. But it is always worth it. Some of my dearest friends were strangers to me before I started going to Bouchercon regularly.

    I can't stress how important it is to volunteer. Not only does it give you something to do and allow you to introduce yourself to strangers, it also keeps the organization running. I am always impressed when I see "big name" authors volunteering. Bouchercon really is the great equalizer. Readers and Writers can not exist without each other!

  9. Okay, Hallie and Hank: I've met both of you can I cannot even imagine either of you as shy. No way.

    I was terrified at my first Bouchercon in Cleveland. This time, not so much. "Enjoying the conference?" "Writer or reader?" "Seen any panels you love today?" and "What are you reading?" are great questions for this kind of event. I volunteered this year, so I got the big sheriff's star pin and got asked a ton of questions (My favorite: Where's the post office?) so that was a natural opening. And of course by volunteering I met people (had the funniest exercise in synchronized pointing with two other women at the information desk). And once people recognized me from the panel I did Saturday, that was an automatic conversation starter.

    My problem is events that AREN'T like Bouchercon. Where I don't know anyone and know very little about what's going on. Total wallflower.

  10. Excellent tips for any social situation, really.

    The first conference I went to was Bouchercon in Indiana. I knew three people who were going to be there, for sure, including Alex Sokoloff... and Hank! Who dragged me off to have a cup of tea with her as if we were longtime soulmates. Bless you forever, Hank, dear.

    Since my youngest daughter moved to Virginia two years ago, I've been to Malice twice. It's a much more compact event, so my advice to any conference novices is to go to a smaller venue first to get your feet wet, as it were. Then you'll have more confidence to jump into the deep, deep ocean of Bouchercon. Also, if you know you're going to be there, alert anyone you "know" from a blog or Facebook. They will almost always be happy to meet you in person, and it's lovely to do the same with people you've been chatting with, sometimes for years.

    The big thing to remember at book conferences, I think, is that we are ALL readers and fans, authors and readers alike. I dearly love that aspect, so much. It's a great equalizer, of sorts, isn't it?

  11. Brenda, it's because you have a lovely smile!
    And because everyone else is there to meet people, too, an a lot of the probably feel even more self conscious than you do, so a smile is so welcome.
    Kristopher: Seconding that, HERE HERE for Volunteers! It's a win/win.

  12. My problem is always that Bouchercon is too short to meet all the people I want to. I'd actually hoped to meet all of the JRWs in person, but didn't achieve that goal. I did keep bumping into Debs, though, which always put a smile on my face.

    I'm pretty out-going and not shy to introduce myself, so I try and make an effort if I see someone hovering nearby, to include them. I've never regretted doing that, and I think we extroverts have that responsibility.

    Now then, next Bouchercon I WILL meet you all in person, dang it!

  13. Synchronized pointing! I love that, Mary. Could be its own panel
    Karen, I think "go to a smaller conference first" is a great piece of advice. Bouchercon was my first and it was SO overwhelming. Regional conferences (Crime Bake here in New England, Killer Nashville, Sleuthfest in Orlando, Magna cum Murder in Indianapolis... there are lots of terrific ones. They're easier to mingle at because everyone there has a shared interest.

  14. Lovely to meet Brenda--my first thought? What a great smile:-)

    And lovely to see Kristopher and Mark, but so sorry not to have caught Edith. That's always the way of it at Bouchercon.

    "Starting smaller" is a good idea, but you can also look at it the other way round. If you start with Bouchercon (which I did) everything else is a piece of cake:-)

    In spite of not seeing everyone I would like to have seen, and not spending as much time as I'd have liked with many people I did see briefly (Rhys, Hank, Susan! And Marcia Talley and Caroline Todd!) I made so many new friends--and readers. It's such a rich experience that it takes a while to process it all, don't you think?

  15. I love Bouchercon.

    I fell completely head over heels at the first one I attended in Baltimore. Two of the first people I met the day before the con actually started were Lee Child and Reed Farrel Coleman and they were adorable! Funny. Fun. and welcoming. And that they both remembered my name whenever I'd bump into them later - including a year later at the Indy Bouchercon sealed the deal. I love 'em.

    And I met Hank for the first time in Baltimore even though it felt like we had known one another for a very long time.

    AND I met Debs in Baltimore and couldn't talk.

    Spending those few days in Raleigh recently helped me during a bit of a tough time. I am forever grateful to this community for all it does for me and for so many others.

    Rooming with Lesa Holstine added to the joy of the entire experience. And we're already signed up for New Orleans. If you find the perfect roommate, stick with her. (Love you, Lesa!)

    And I am TERRIBLE at small talk. But I always seem to be in a spot where I get to introduce people to one another and conversation just takes off from there. 'tis lovely.

    And it was beyond wonderful seeing so many of you in Raleigh. Hugs and More Hugs to each of you.

  16. Kim, the good thing about MORE than one drink is it loosens you up. The problem with more than one drink is that it loosens you up...

  17. Great tips! Like Lucy, I stink at parties. I have to force myself to get out there and meet and greet, but I'm getting better, now I can boldly go and eavesdrop, still not great at the joining in part. Hank, I'm taking a page from your motto and from now on, I'm going to be HERE - or there, or here, or...oh, you get the picture!

  18. The thing that I am hearing and that is impressing me is that almost (if not every) author commenting here has stated that they consider themselves introverted and uneasy in a crowd. You cannot possibly know how encouraging that is to me -- to realize that I am not the only one.

  19. I seem very extroverted, and I play that up, but secretly conferences and meeting people scares me to death. I do try to volunteer, and I love to be on panels. Hank has bailed me (and my husband) out at more than one conference. She's such a sweetheart. There are a few others that are so friendly that instantly you feel part of the group. I'm not from New England, but I went to Crime Bake to meet Sue Grafton, and I fell in love with the authors from that area. Most everyone made me feel welcome. I still love going back to the Crime Bake conferences. This year conferences went to the wayside to make room for surgeries, and new great-grandbabies. I did, however, go to one conference this year, West Virginia Writers' Conference, it was only 40 miles from my house and I had a great time there. It's small and informal, but very packed full of fun and useful information. Cher'ley

  20. Jeanine, I know! And it's more than just: misery loves company.

    Cher'ley we'll miss you at the Bake! This year we have Elizabeth George. I wonder if she's self-conscious in crowds...

  21. I remember my first B'con too -- San Francisco. I went alone, roomed alone, and didn't know anyone (although, while there, I ran into writers from the Portland scene, so that was nice). I remember being surprised by the bar scene; it was nuts and it didn't take me long to figure out that the bar was where to meet people. So I squared my shoulders and walked on in ... One of my shortcomings as a social creature is that I suck at small talk. I just canNOT think of things to say -- at the first B'con I started every conversation with a version of this being my first B'con and wow, what fun -- that kind of thing ... but, after that? Uh, what to say now? :-)

    Of course, it's tons easier now that I know people. It's like going to the best high school reunion, isn't it? :-) Also, the Sisters in Crime folks are always lovely. In San Francisco, I edged my way into a SinC crowd at one point, met Leslie Budewitz in the process, and she was so kind.

    I've also learned to cop to the fact that I've forgotten names. It's easier than faking it even though sometimes I mortify myself in the process. And I give other people a break by stating my name in case they don't remember me. (I did that with you last year, Debs.)

  22. Thanks Hallie, I will miss you too. I have been in several of your sessions, and I have enjoyed each one. Cher'ley

  23. My first Bouchercon was just two years ago, in Albany, and it wasn't really the best one to start with, as the hotel situation was not conducive to mingling for me. I stayed at the hotel where you were bused in and out from the convention. So, I missed the bar scene and the get-togethers that are so important to enjoying Bouchercon. That's not to say that I didn't enjoy it. I was wild with joy at seeing and meeting favorite authors and attending the panels where books were the topic in every shape and form. And, I didn't know how to work the crowd very well.

    Bouchercon 2015 was perfect in hotel locations, author one-on-ones (well, as you say Rhys, a one-on-one didn't last long), bar meet-ups, and spontaneous meetings that led to new friendships. I was ready and galloped out as soon as the gate opened (have to have some horse imagery being from Kentucky). In the two years since I'd attended Bouchercon, I had gotten to know many people online and joined this wonderful blog to get to know the Reds and participants here better. It's hard to believe, but in some large crowds, I can be a bit hesitant. Not in a book crowd, although I do sometimes fear that I will all of a sudden dry up and have nothing to say. As Kristopher said, being "on" does require effort, as you don't want to slight anyone or sound stupid in front of people you admire. I try not to be too aggressive, but my enthusiasm can't be contained when I spy a favorite author, blogger, reader, or book industry person. I am genuinely delighted to see them. I have been known to do a little scream when I see someone, but I'm just that happy. I practically mauled Kristopher and Michael when I first saw them. Debs, Rhys, Hank, I try not to be too creepy following you all. Hahaha! Susan, major highlight meeting you. Edith and Kaye were as sweet in person as they are online. Mark Pryor, I so wanted to talk with you and missed you. New Orleans for sure! Brenda and Mary S., I'm so sorry I missed you two, too. Again, next year.

  24. (Finally did it. My commentary was too long for one posting. Here's the rest.)

    Hallie, your tips of volunteering and introducing oneself are spot on. Although I haven't volunteered yet, I plan to next year in NOLA. Since I have a reading blog, I have printed cards and use that method to introduce myself (while verbally saying who I am), hoping it will help new friends to remember me. The drink rule is a good one, too, although I did allow myself two Moscow Mules two nights in a row. Apparently, I tolerate them well. Susan and Debs, you all have some excellent introductory questions, and who at a book convention isn't eager to talk about what they've read or are reading. Hank, I can't believe you hid in your room during your first Bouchercon! You are always ready to roll. I love your description of Bouchercon as a treasure hunt, Hank. Lucy, I have a hard time picturing you as shy, too, but once someone talks to you, I know that they would love you. Rhys, wherever you, Debs, and Hank gather, a crowd is sure to form.

  25. I'm determined to go to a Bouchercon, but I can predict that I will be so overwhelmed by the crowd that I'll hide out in my hotel room à la Hank. Coming out will probably depend on finding friends there. Fair warning to friends (and others unmentionable) I'm aiming at Dallas 2019. Just thinking about it makes me sweat. I am very much an introvert.

    Thanks Hallie. This was great--including all the tips I'm jotting down!

  26. ... but that "I have to mingle" explanation, while perfectly understandable, is the kind of thing that my mind gets while my insides say I failed at polite conversation... and now I am left here all alone looking stupid again. That's why I have to start preparing 4 years in advance. ;-)

  27. Lovely reading all the comments and suggestions.

    I think the experience is different for fans than authors. Authors are kept pretty busy with panel discussions, catching up with each other, their publishers, editors, etc. Then there are the dinners, awards etc.

    For a fan, other than attending panels, some book shopping and signing, there is not a lot to do unless convention is in a very walkable area that has a lot of restaurants, shopping, places of interest close by.

    Sadly, I missed Bouchercon this year

    MY first and only Bouchercon was Albany, NY 2013 - I have been online friends with Debs for, well I don't remember how long now, seems like a lifetime. I remember the first email I sent her and how thrilled I was to get one back - we developed a friendship.

    Finally got to meet Debs when she was doing a talk on her books in Florida - we were at my MIL's in Fla and Debs was only 1-1/2 hours away, I threatened hubby if he didn't take me (I don't drive) To meet Debs....he actually sat through Debs talk and paid attention......I figured I'd be smacking him the entire time for snoring ;)

    We had the privilege to take Debs to lunch and spend a few hours with her B4 we had to head back.

    Point to that story - a few days before BC Albany, Debs posted she was getting ready to go and I said that sounds fun. Asked where she was headed and she said Albany, NY.....

    OMG I was Thrilled !!!

    DH and I were headed home the w/e of Bouchercon. We were meeting some friends for dinner Fri & Sat then Sunday to the Adirondacks to spend time with friends for a few days

    So I got to see Debs again and have a great chat - I also have another great friend in Elly Griffiths......when I signed up (immediately after Debs telling me about it) to attend BC on Saturday, I saw Elly was going to be there from England !

    Two of my most Fave authors and wonderful friends 1/2 hr from where I was going to be

    OK - I ramble.

    MY FIRST BOUCHERCON experience as a fan......petrified, so many people (panic attacks) and there I was all alone in this huge room. I would have loved if someone had come up and talked to me, I've never been good at initiating conversations, especially in a huge crowd - I'm the flower attached to a chair against a wall in large crowds

    I did some shopping, always need more books. then I headed over to where Elly was signing books waiting for her to finish - she had no idea I was going to be there

    Sitting at her table was Hank - I purchased her book and had it signed - was nice to meet another Jungle Red Author.

    No one at Elly's line - I walked over and said Hi - I'm Mar from Tennessee, look on her face was precious, she came around the table and we had a huge hug - never did I think I'd meet her as she lives in England........She had a while yet of signing, so I headed off looking for Debs.... finally found her and we had a nice visit then we walked up to Elly's table so Debs could meet her.

    Then I got to have a really nice chat with Elly, we found a quiet, windy spot outside and visited until she had to leave and see her publisher.

    So my first Bouchercon was last minute decision and an awesome experience.

    I got to say hi to Hank and spend time with Debs and Elly. I wish I'd had more time, but had to leave as we had plans

    Volunteering sounds like a good idea if I get to attend another, be nice to meet people as they came in to register

  28. Mar, you should get the best-fan-ever award!!!

  29. I was pretty miserable at my first Bouchercon, too, even though I already knew some of the other attendees. Probably what sealed my doom in Albany was still feeling wiped out after attending the whirlwind Writer's Police Academy a week or so earlier.

    I have some go-to small talk questions. My fave is, Where are you from? Did you have a long flight/drive/walk? Are there any local sites you recommend?

    From my favorite party location ever, near the food. Have you tried the dip? Is yellow thing good? Who moved our cheese? (Or something about the cheese. Who moved the cheese is Something Else.)

    If I do love it, and I usually do because so many of us find interesting accessories, I'll "love your necklace/shoes/bag!"

  30. Hallie, it took every bit of courage I could muster to introduce myself to YOU at Malice last year. So very heartening to know you are human!

  31. Loved reading these comments--Lucy, I'm with you (and you were kind enough to talk to me at my first Bcon, when i was just starting to write a mystery and standingg in the back of the Anthony Awards reception clutching a soggy napkin and empty glass!). Love real one-on-one or small group conversations but the thought of plunging into a crowded bar without knowing anybody sends me fleeing back to my room (which, alas, was a mile away, also not a good strategy). Am going to take every bit of this advice to heart for next year!

  32. Mary - thanks for volunteering at the Info Desk! It was great to meet you and perform our synchronized pointing trick. Later Naomi and I did the trifecta with synchronized pointing and harmony on the response. It was then I knew I'd been at the Info desk for too long!

    Since this was my first B'con and I knew nobody, and I'm local, I decided to volunteer. It was a lot of fun and I met a ton of people. It was kind of surprising how nice everyone was, both authors and fans. I think that was the nicest thing to see was how you could be talking to someone, and only later look at their name tag and go "OH! I've been talking to...!" and they were just like everyone else - very friendly. But volunteering is definitely the way to meet a lot of people quickly.