column_breakout.gifConvention season is here again. With aspiring creators out there planning to barrage busy editors with their submissions, many people start to think about how they can stand out in the crowd. They consider using “look at me” gimmicks, stalking editors to spring their work on them when no one else is around, or raining pages of script from the third floor of the hotel as the editor waits for a taxi. Those people work hard to make themselves memorable in the eyes of the editor…they’ll be remembered all right, but probably filed under the category “potentially annoying.” Not really the right impression to leave an editor with, is it?

For aspiring creators, attending conventions holds various benefits–learning new things, meeting new people, and getting word out about your work. Conventions are NOT job fairs. Can you walk away from a convention with a job? I’m sure you could…anything’s possible. But if you focus most of your energy and time at a convention trying to find work, make sure to book an extra seat on the flight home for your buddy, Disappointment. Spend your time getting the most out of the con. Learn something new, make some new friends, or get word out about your existing/upcoming work…jobs will follow. This series of convention tips focuses on ways to maximize those benefits, so let’s start with something many people dread…Speaking (in Public).

Whether going from table to table to chat with people or being behind the table addressing questions and comments from passersby, speaking becomes an important trait for the convention experience. Many people run into trouble when speaking to strangers or talking someplace where everyone can hear them…shyness, nervousness, low self-esteem, and outright fear cause people to freeze up. Some people are naturals at speaking to others, but most need to learn and practice the craft to get comfortable with it. This article will provide some basic strategies and tips on speaking, but it’s a skill where that knowledge really needs to be applied to build confidence in it. For getting that experience, I recommend joining your local Toastmasters group or signing up for a course in Public Speech or Theater at a nearby college.

What’s your name? In art and writing, many people stumble on the first page, and in speaking, worry over a good opening causes lots of problems. The easiest way to start a drawing is with a single line. For writing, it just takes a single word. When speaking and you’re worrying over how to start, there’s a simple opening that often works the best…your name. The name’s a powerful thing. When you hand it over to someone, you give him or her something that means a lot to you, and they usually respond in kind. Look at that…instant interaction. I’ve seen people talk themselves out of going up to speak to someone because they were so nervous about making a good impression with their first line. The most memorable “lines” develop naturally from the actual conversation, so stop worrying about what to say and introduce yourself.

Do a little research. Research? Blech! Kind of like studying and homework, right? Double…no, triple blech! What the heck do you need to do that for? Well, if you want to talk to people about stuff, you should probably know a little bit about…stuff. Two types of research lead the way here–general and focused studies.

General studies revolve around current events, trivia and everyday bits of knowledge. Conversations drift easily. One minute you’re discussing comic books and the next you could be talking about how Genghis Khan’s territorial conquests exceeded that of Alexander the Great, Attila the Hun and Napoleon combined…which could lead to a discussion of how Napoleon was afraid of kittens…and that might remind someone of their new kitten they just named Knickers…and so on and so forth. This doesn’t mean you need to be an expert at everything (or even try to be). You just need to have some familiarity with a variety of subjects so you can participate in the conversation…even if it’s just knowing enough to ask an intelligent question and let the other people involved run with it. So, where do you get that kind of familiarity? Reading newspapers, magazines, or books; watching the news, “do-it-yourself” shows, history shows, or documentaries; listening to lectures, speeches, panel discussions or even just people chatting it up in a bar. Some great sources of general information out there are the Sunday New York Times (which a lot of local libraries have available), Variety/Hollywood Reporter (if you like to discuss the Hollywood happenings), and bathroom books (like the Great American Bathroom Book, which has condensed summaries of some of the all-time great books, or the Uncle John’s Bathroom Readers, which have a little bit of everything…history, etymology, strange stories, quotes and a lot more).

Focused studies deal with a known factor…the convention. Each guest has likes, dislikes, family, friends, cities they grew up in, schools they attended, projects they’ve worked on, and more. Somewhere in all that you could find some common ground. Maybe you went to the same high school as one of the guests or you both enjoy volleyball or possibly even have some mutual friends. Common ground gives you a good stepping stone for a conversation that involves things both people enjoy…and knowing what that common ground is beforehand is a lot easier than trying to find it in the middle of a discussion. And you don’t have to stop with just the guests…there’s the history of the convention itself, information on the retailers and publishers that will be there, or even knowing a little bit about the convention city and the area immediately surrounding the convention. Specific research topics you can look into that are pertinent to your situation…topics that can easily be brought up when talking about the convention or the city you’re currently in.

Be observant. You’re walking over to talk to a comic professional at a convention. Freeze this moment and observe. The person sitting next to the professional has an Oakland Raiders hat on. The pro stretches and yawns as the person currently talking to him at his booth yammers on and on without even noticing. Another person anxiously waits behind the talker with a portfolio in hand. The pro’s wearing a t-shirt with one of his less popular characters on it. It’s hotter in this section of the convention than anywhere else. The booth next to the pro’s has a gimmick with two people dressed up as goldfish in boxer shorts fighting each other with nunchakus made out of bras and rolled-up newspapers. The smell of stale popcorn and old pizza carries over to here from the nearby concessions area. Got all that? Good–it could be useful information to know.

Observation ties you into the people, the surroundings, and the conversation itself. People provide body language, gestures, and facial expressions that relay feedback to the speaker about the topic discussed or the way it’s presented. The surroundings present opportunities to take the conversation in a variety of different directions. And listening carefully to the conversation gives clues to how it could evolve by linking choice words or phrases to prior observations and prior research. So, pay attention, stay alert and get as much mileage as you can out of that conversation.

But…be careful. As a writer, I developed a people-watching habit to help clue into new ideas and new dialogue. So, sometimes I’ll zone out into observer mode at malls, bars, clubs, and other places with large crowds and take in all kinds of information…sights, sounds, smells, etc. I’ve caught myself doing that during conversations in the past, and I know a couple other people that run into that problem as well. It doesn’t make for very engaging conversation…trust me. People like good listeners, but if you don’t respond and participate in the conversation, it’ll slowly die out. So, be careful about focusing on observation to the point of exclusion of actually saying something.

Nervousness is your friend. So, what happens when you get nervous? Adrenaline kicks into your system. Your heart races to speed oxygen-gorged blood to your muscles. Your respiration picks up to meet these increased oxygen demands. Perspiration forms on your skin as a means of keeping your body cool. You’re afraid, and your body is priming itself for performance. Fight or flight. But in speaking, most people can’t run from the situation (technically, they can run from any speaking opportunity–they just have to deal with the consequences afterwards), so they wind up following that fight instinct even though there really isn’t anything to fight. Except that fear. So, they gather up all that energy generated by the fear and try to suppress that same fear with it. Hands shake and teeth chatter as the struggle internalizes. An endless cycle of fear intensifying to handle the battle against itself.

How do you fight the fear then? You don’t–you make friends with it instead. Invite it on over to help out with something else and burn up a little of that anxious energy. Do a little quality pacing before you speak…use some of that energy on some gestures and body language while you’re talking…sneak off somewhere and do some pushups…focus on taking slow, deep breaths…redirect it into your motivation and determination. Just don’t focus all that energy on your fear…you’ll just give it more power. Break the cycle and get on with it.


These are just a few quick ideas to help out with speaking in public situations…a quick rundown of tips gathered from various public speaking courses, speech and debate competitions, impromptu speaking during instructor training, and more. As I mentioned before, this information really needs to be applied to get the most out of it…in other words, it takes a little practice. Practice to figure out how big of a leap you can take into a tangent without losing everyone. Practice to get a feel for reading the feedback from the listener. Practice to get comfortable with speaking and help make nervousness your friend. So, get out there and talk to someone…anyone–it’s one of the cheapest and easiest ways to practice speaking.