Advice for Introductions at Conferences

Spring is here, which means the start of conference season!

Well, if we *get* to have a conference season this year. Hopefully COVID-19 won’t ruin all of our plans. The SFWA Board met yesterday and we’re planning to go ahead with Nebula Conference at the end of May. We’ve talked with the hotel and put contingency plans in place, but for now we’re still on.

One thing that’s been on my mind to mention for a while is introductions at conferences. People talk about this from time to time, but I think it’s always worth revisiting. Here’s a little story I want to tell you, to explain why this topic is evergreen.

Not long ago, I was on a call with a number of people. One of them was new to the group. We’ll call her Sally. I said, “Hi, Sally! Have we met before?”

She said, “Yes, Jeffe. Like four times.”

Of course I felt bad about that. And I remembered her after that! But how do I remember her? As the person who called me out. My feeling shitty about not remembering her is now the feeling I most strongly associate with Sally.

Introductions are not an easy thing to navigate. And I freely cop to this failing of mine. Yes, it’s a failing, and I’m not getting better as I get older. I’m terrible at recognizing faces. I’m pretty good at retaining names – I’m primarily an auditory learner – and I’m likely to remember obscure facts you tell me about yourself, but I might not put your name to your face. I’m the person at the table who has no idea what the server looks like. I once mixed up Matt Dillon/Matt Damon & Ben Stiller/Ben Affleck, because Something About Mary and Good Will Hunting came out around the same time. Never mind that these people look nothing alike, nor are the movies anything alike – but look at the cadence of the names and titles.

This is how my brain files stuff. I’d say it’s annoying, except that overall it’s a pretty good filing system. I can recall a lot of information and my brain has served me well all my life. I’m a great test-taker. I’m not so great at remembering faces, or if I’ve met someone.

That’s the other thing. I meet a lot of people, especially at conferences. I hit overload pretty quickly, too, often after the first day. I can be a gregarious person, but I’m functionally an introvert. I live in the country where it’s quiet, with dirt roads and no street lights. I can go days never seeing another live person besides my husband. We don’t have many visitors, besides the birds, coyotes and bobcats – and I can’t really tell them apart either.

I know I don’t remember people well, and I’m not proud of it. But I also loathe leaving people unacknowledged. So, I err on the side of reintroducing myself. I’ll usually give my name, and ask if we’ve met before. Most people are super gracious about it if we have. What I love is if they offer me context. Something like, “Yes, we met last year at Nebula Conference and were on the burnout panel together.” Then I’ll be all “Oh, right! And you talked about how you went through x, y, z.” I just need that contextual trigger.

You know how I remember them after that? With pleasure. And I’m more likely to retain that identifier and remember them next time.

One year, when my Twelve Kingdoms series was first taking off, I went to a conference and was introducing myself, as I always do. Only that year, for the first time, when I said, “Hi, I’m Jeffe Kennedy,” the other person said, “Oh, I know.” People, this happened not once, not twice, but at least three times. Maybe more. It was a total conversation killer. I don’t know if they meant it flatteringly – or if they’d heard unkind gossip. But it was most unsettling. I can tell you this, too – some of the most famous authors I’ve met have introduced themselves. I think that route is far better than expecting everyone to Know Who You Are.

So, what’s the advice?

  1. Introduce yourself to everyone you’re not sure you know.
  2. Don’t be shamed if someone says you’ve already met.
  3. Feel free to look at name tags. That’s why we wear them.
  4. Don’t be shamed if someone calls you out for looking at their name tag.
  5. If someone you’ve met before doesn’t remember you, don’t be offended. Don’t call them out. Be gracious. Maybe offer a helpful bit of context for when you met before.
  6. If they still don’t remember you, be cool about it, because this is your opportunity to create an impression with them. Don’t make it a shitty one.

 

Remember: we go to conferences to meet each other and celebrate our shared profession. It can be awesome.

 

 

4 Replies to “Advice for Introductions at Conferences”

  1. I’m terrible at remembering names and faces. If I’ve met someone only one time I won’t recognize them the next time I see them. Apparently it’s one of the things that you can struggle with when you’re dyslectic (dyslexia runs in my family and the name/face thing is luckily one of two things I suffer from. The other being I can’t hear the difference between some sounds, like when there’s an f or v in a word). Anyway: I solve this by saying at introduction “Sorry, I’m bad at names, so I’ll be asking you for your name again at a certain point.”

    Most people don’t mind.

    And then there are the conversations with people who clearly recognize me and start talking about mutual acquaintances while I’m drawing a total blank on who they are. Just smiling, nodding along, and avoiding having to use their name gets you a long way in those cases.

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