Over the past eight months as a student of Publishing at Edinburgh Napier University I have attended multiple online conferences, local lectures, and discussion panels. As engaging and inspiring as these events were, however, nothing could prepare me for the intensity of a large-scale in-person conference! Jumping straight into the deep end, my first was the London Book Fair of 2022. I had seen the schedule of talks and had planned roughly what I would attend, but I had no further idea of how to fully engage in the conference and get as much out of it as possible. Indeed, my first morning was a rather wobbly orientation period (like a baby giraffe taking its first steps) but as I spoke to more friendly stallholders and attended more thrilling talks I became more confident, leading to more productive interactions with professionals. I hereby present a list of things that particularly helped me orient myself and make contacts and which should be useful to any student attending an in-person conference who is nervous about being out of place among successful industry professionals:
1. Pack like a survivalist
This may seem a little obvious, but it is essential that you pack for the occasion! Food and drinks are often expensive in conference venues and the queues around lunchtime will be long. Bringing your own food and water is therefore a must. Also wear comfortable shoes as your mileage will rival that of marathon runners and bring plenty of tote bags to store the flyers, catalogues, and other merchandise that you will amass.
2. Be honest about who you are and what you want from the conversation
When in a large building packed full of successful people with busy agendas you can feel a little inadequate and be tempted to hide the big STUDENT badge hanging around your neck. However, people as a species are helpful, and are more likely to go into detail or welcome “silly” questions if you preface the conversation with the fact that you are inexperienced. This also avoids any disappointment on their end – most businesses are there to profit in some way from making business connections, so if you first approach them in the guise of a professional they may feel like you have been wasting their time.
3. Make sure that a professional has time to talk to you
To build up good working relationships with someone, they have to want to speak with you. The best way to make sure that you can speak with someone from a particular business is to arrange a meeting beforehand. However, this requires that you have both some previous contact with the company and a specific reason for meeting. If you are using the conference to find out about new companies, this is therefore not an option. In this case you will have to brave your social anxieties and speak to strangers. How, then, to do this without interrupting someone’s schedule?
What worked well for me was to browse stalls of companies I liked or was drawn to (even if you don’t end up talking to anyone, the browsing is great for inspiration and market knowledge). This allows stallholders to open the conversation themselves, indicating that they have the time to spend on you. Having browsed, you will then also have material to base your questions on.
You can also wait until after you have attended a couple of talks. Hereby you immediately have an opener: “hello, I attended the panel you were on and have a few questions”. It also means you will have had a little more time to acclimatise yourself to the vibe of the conference before making contact. Finally, take advantage of every opportunity. If there is an allotted time for questions at the end of a talk, make sure you take advantage of this. If someone approaches you, match their energy. I had two of the best and most productive conversations of the conference with stall holders who approached me with a question as I was walking past.
4. Keep detailed notes
It is absolutely essential that you bring along a notepad and multiple pens. Not only will this help you make notes during talks, but you will also be able to keep track of anyone you have spoken to, any companies who interested you, and contact details you may have been lucky enough to acquire. Using electronic equipment is not advised as typing on a mobile phone during a talk looks rude and inattentive, whilst lugging an expensive laptop around is both cumbersome and risky.
Keep track of not only the names of companies, but also a brief description of their output and, if relevant, what you talked about. This avoids the confusion of deciphering a long list of names at a later date. I found it useful to take five minutes after each personal interaction, find a table and write down my notes, rather than trying to scribble during a conversation.
5. Keep it fun
Again perhaps a little obvious, but it is important to remember that you are a student and therefore not obliged to meet any sales quotas, give lectures, or attend meetings. Make a schedule of things you would like to see or do, but allow yourself the flexibility to take a breather, let a conversation run over time, or attend an impromptu talk. If you are liable to getting mentally overwhelmed, prepare by locating the exits and any quiet spots as soon as you come to the venue and don’t be angry with yourself if you have to depart somewhat from your schedule. If you find yourself physically tired, it may be an idea to find a quiet café nearby in which to recharge. Alternatively, you can remain in your seat after an interesting talk and see what information the room has to offer next. Who knows? You may discover some unexpected interests!