Thursday, April 4, 2013

Engaging Other Humans at a Conference

Write down reminders about the conversation you have.

It's easy for artistic types to lock themselves in their rooms and avoid interacting with others. I know, they think differently then us and conform to social norms that seem superficial and foreign, but hiding away does you no good.  Besides, if you ever want to make a living at this, it behooves you to learn how to have a friendly conversation with a stranger while minimizing the creepy awkwardness.

Being someone who does do this for a living, I've had to overcome these social hurtles as every so often I find myself at a conference. Last week was the Game Developers Conference and met more people than I would naturally meet in a year. I've had my fare share of awkward conversations in the past (hell, I still do). but over the years (and with plenty of good advice) I've learned how to interact with humans in a conference environment. They are strange creatures, but rather friendly once you get to know them.

It can be easy to pass up an opportunity to talk to someone because you're nervous or shy, but once you know what to say it's not that hard. Think of it like a tennis match. Once you learn how to serve the ball, your opponent knows how to hit it right back. Conversations like this are a fun little game where the goal is to see if we should even be talking to each other in the first place. If the answer is yes, then you win the game by exchanging information.

A cold conversation can happen like this (cold, as in you're standing next to someone you don't know and decide to talk to them):

Me: Hey, my name's Garret AJ (extend hand for shake) 

Keven: Hey Garret, I'm Keven (Shakes my hand)

Me: Nice to meet you Keven, what do you do?
Keven: I work for a big company where I replace good programing with horse meat to cut back on cost.
Me: Oh sweet, I've heard of your company. Did they send you here on their behalf or are you here on your own... (and so on)

Now, at this stage I can decide if this guy is someone I need to talk to or not. If he is, I'll ask him to look at my portfolio while I question him more about what kind of skills it must take to do his job. Here's a list of things you can ask someone in these settings if you want to keep the conversation going.

  • Do you work here in town?
  • Where are you originally from?
  • What brought you to (insert conference here) 
  • I loved this product your company made (if you're familiar with the company work) 

Rule of thumb: Ask them about themselves. If the conversation migrates to you then let it happen. You're having a conversation after all. 

What if you want to end the conversation or realize you don't need to talk to this person as they're not in a position to employ you or get you employed? Here's some quick ways to end a conversation in a polite and reasonable way:

  • Well hey Keven, it was great meeting you. If I run into anyone in your field, I'll make sure to tell them about you. 
  • I got to get going to the (Horse meat) booth before the line gets too long, it was a pleasure meeting you. 
  • Well, I loved talking with you I hope (something pertinent to the conversation happens to you) your mother wins the lottery this time.
  • Thanks for talking with me, I got to go meet up with my group. I'll see you around the conference. 

Basically, just tell them you're moving on to the next thing. It seems like you could easily offend someone this way, but in this environment people know the deal. It's not even weird at all, they'll just say "Nice meeting you" and you go your separate ways.

So, let's just say you get along with someone and exchange information. Now what? Of course you move on to the next person, but if your on a mission to meet specific people, it would be efficient to find out where they are. In my case at the GDC, I spent most of my time near the career center where game companies had all their fun little booths set up to display all their different types of horse meat.

For artists in particular here are my best tips on how you should handle talking to people at the booths.

  1. Walk up and introduce yourself and ask if they are interested in talking to someone like you. "Hi, I'm Garret AJ, are you guys talking to concept artist?"
  2. Most likely they say yes and go into a spiel about their company. This is when you ask, "Is there anyone from the art team I can talk to."
  3. They answer yes or no. Yes means you talk to an art director or lead artist. No means you ask them if there will be anyone from the art team around today to talk to. 
  4. They answer your question, you take whatever swag or business cards they give you, and you go on your merry way. 

Why do I do this? Because, recruiters are nice, but they are almost useless to talk to if you're an artist (not saying there aren't some good recruiters out there). Often giving my card to a recruiter is the same a throwing it in the garbage. Recruiters are interested in collecting large amounts of information, and will ask for your resume or have you fill out an application. They can't tell between good art and bad, and they will not vouch for you because they have nothing to vouch for. They don't really know you or owe you anything. You're just another face in their long day of seeing faces.

That being said, do not avoid recruiters by any means. If you end up talking to one, be nice and hear them out. You never know where a good contact can come from.

However Ideally getting to the source is the way to go. Talk to art directors and be nice. Let them critique your work and give you ideas. Pay attention and remember details about the conversation. Then when you're done and on your way, go somewhere and write their name down and what you talked about. I personally like to use dot stickers to secure their business card over that information to make life easier later on (see pictures).

Then when you get home send them a short email saying you enjoyed meeting them at the conference and remind them of the conversation you had. "I was the guy who was asking about your horse meat." Make sure you tell them what the email is about. Job offer, contract work, following up with more information they requested, etc. Then cross your fingers and hope the get it.

Contacts I made with fellow artists.
As it comes to interacting with others in your field, all I can say is be nice, look at their work, wish them the best. Collect their card and connect with them on Facebook.They are not your enemy and don't treat them like competition. They are someone just like you on their own path and you should be commiserating and supporting your fellow travelers. And like I said before, you never know where a good contact can come from.

And there you have it. It's not hard at all once you get the hang of it. And if you have a friend who knows the routine see if they can wing-man you on a few interactions before you get it down. 

I hope that helps, and I wish you happy hunting.

Thanks for reading.

NEVER argue with Critiques. Listen to what they say and write it down.

If someone runs out of cards, gather enough info so you can look them up later.


  1. Nice Post Garret, very good idea about making a little note map in a sketchbook, I'm going to have to steal that idea. how was the GDC for meeting art directors for freelance work? Especially in the world of 2d concept art focusing on creature design?

    1. There are lots of art team members there to meet. A lot of the booths where looking for in-house positions, but I did make several contacts for contract work. I can't telly you how it worked out, because the event just happened and the dust still needs to settle. Also, right now I'm very busy on a project I love, so even if someone where to contact me I would have to tell them they need to wait. though next time I find myself out of work I know who to email.

  2. Really, really appreciate the roadmap of social business interactions for the terminally awkward - I'm not sure why it's always so terrifying, but you've laid out a good framework for making it more manageable.

    1. I'm glad I could help. I'm not the most sociable person either. This is they kind of info that helped me get over it in this settings. So I pass that on to you.