How popular are conventions? Well, Game Developers Conference 2016 had over 27,000 industry professionals under one roof. That’s a heck of a lot of networking opportunities! And honestly, that can also be incredibly daunting. Regardless of where you are in your game development career, conventions are an integral part of networking, as overwhelming as they can be.
It can be natural to put up excuses—ah! I can here them now.
“But I’m an introvert.”
So are Barack Obama, Warren Buffet, Mark Zuckerburg, and Bill Gates.
I’m an introvert as well who has spent the past decade figuring out this whole “networking” business.
So hold your “buts” for now (or put them in the comment section), and learn from my mistakes.
Why Is Networking so Hard?
As a child, many of us are hurled into a room of other confused children and told to make friends. It’s supposed to be natural right? But no one really teaches us how to connect with other people. We just stumble in and hope we share something in common.
When we’re older, we try our hands at professional networking at so-called “networking mixers” where it turns out multi-level marketers try to sell their products to each other, everyone running around hoping to get their back scratched. Then, when we finally go to a gaming convention, our eyes glaze over at the crowds and we locate the guy wearing the cool Zelda t-shirt and spend the next three days tethered to our new friend because, “Everyone’s lame here.”
I was like that. Right out of college, I participated in gaming conventions to find my tribe of game developers. I saw conventions as a place where I could really connect with people I shared a common interest with, and after spending tens of thousands of dollars (conference tickets and air travel ain’t cheap), I gave up.
But something changed when I quit attending conventions as a fan and treated them like a job. I committed to learning the craft of networking. It’s a skill just like anything else! Now, I leave conventions with lifelong friends/future business associates—ones who send Christmas cards and let me crash at their studio.
I’m going to teach you how to network at a gaming convention. Follow me and you’ll jumpstart your process on building lifelong relationships with the top influencers in the world.
For now, we’ll be looking at how to network before a convention. Next, we’ll discover strategies to connect during a convention. And finally,we’ll learn how to keep your connections by networking after a convention.
Ready? Let’s jump right in.
Part One: Before A Game Convention
That’s not just a lame Facebook quote.
If you want to level up your life, you need to level up the people around you. Life’s a team game.
Networking allows you to connect with:
- Mentors who have “walked the walk” and can help you shortcut your way through challenges.
- Peers who can bounce ideas off of each other and grow together.
- Advocates who will vouch for you and introduce you to the right people.
- Influencers who have an audience or who can magnify your voice.
Doing the Work
If you’re shy or quiet, networking may feel unnatural. But get out of your comfort zone and fake it until you make it. Stop using excuses about why you can’t, and in the words of Nike, “Just Do It.”
A trick that helped me is what I call the Guitar-Hero Method. If you’ve played Guitar Hero, you’ll know that missing a note doesn’t hurt you: you’ll just hear an annoying buzz. But the notes keep coming, and if you focus on the notes you missed, you’ll lose the ones coming up. Eventually, you’ll fail. Stop thinking about your fails and focus on the end goal.
Be honest with yourself: What’s the worse that can happen?
Key Strategies to Remember
Let’s jump right into key networking strategies.
Extrovert or introvert, remember why you’re there.
If you’re an introvert, take time to recharge. If you’re an extrovert, find conversations that energize you. Remember why you’re attending. You’re very likely to bump into an Apple engineer who can give you advice or a video game veteran who can help you get funding.
Never eat alone.
This is based on the best-selling book, Never Eat Alone. The premise is to plant yourself in “the action.” If you’re there already, take the initiative and start “the action.” You’re not going to get any connections sitting alone in the food court looking at your Dota 2 stats.
Create goals to make it easier.
The team at NerdFitness.com gamified the act of working out into quests, levels, and achievements. Instead of treating networking like a suit-and-tie business opportunity, deal with it like play.
“Today, I’ll talk to 10 people.” That’s my personal goal at every convention. I start easy. When I get nervous, I can remind myself of the goal. The next day, I push myself to bigger challenges: “Interview 5 developers,” “Impress 10 journalists,”“Connect with three people I respect from the internet.”
Be open to change.
The best opportunities are when you just “go with it.” In his GDC talk, Anti-Chamber developer Alexander Bruce shared how he wanted to return to his hotel room but was invited to a private party for game developers. He went with the flow and hung out with the big movers and shakers of the gaming industry.
You don’t need to be charismatic.
People aren’t born with good conversation skills. In the book The Charisma Myth, the author shares how great speakers had to learn the strategies to hold a conversation. You can learn it too, which I’ll cover in Part 2 (patience, young party-hopper).
Using IF-THEN statements for networking.
No, this isn’t my programming background leaking. Implementation Intention (from the book Rethinking Positive Thinking is a cerebral strategy where you envision your future obstacles, and then create IF-THEN statements on outcomes.
Example: IF you’re in a conversation with a gamer who only wants to brag about his sweet Smash Bros skills, THEN politely share that you are running late for an event.
Gaming conventions like GDC costs about $1000 to attend. Add the price of sleeping arrangements, food, and travel, and you’re looking at about $2,000 minimum for one person.
With that figure, do you want to leave it to chance that you’ll be successful?
The best networkers do their homework before any event. Let’s jump into it.
Three Weeks Before: Connecting with Speakers
At this point, the conference should have locked down the speaking events.
Look at the schedule and do a rough outline of what lectures you want to attend. Find the contact information on those speakers, follow them on Twitter, and look into their previous work.
Let them know you’re excited to attend.
This research serves two purposes:
- You will be familiar with their experience. When you approach the speaker after their event, they will respect you for taking time to do research and you will quickly gain their favor.
- At the event, you’ll meet other fans of the speaker. The biggest mistake you can make is to go, “Wow, this guy’s talk is excellent! Who is he?” only to be told that you were just speaking to Ken Levine.
Two Weeks Before: Connecting with Booths, Press, and Influencers
Youtubers, bloggers, and other game developers will start announcing that they’ll attend through social media. The expo map may be available, or the official Twitter hashtag will appear.
Let these influencers know. “I’m excited to see your booth at the con!” is powerful. Your enthusiasm makes them enthusiastic.
At a podcast convention, I shared that I was excited to meet my favorite podcasters. When I finally said hello, they greeted me with a huge hug and a free T-shirt, as well as an opportunity to pick their brain. Many influencers also do live interviews during these events. It allows them to generate content by newsjacking on a trend.
A Week Before: Connecting with Other Attendees
You’re excited, and so is everyone else. Take this opportunity to find groups to join—like Facebook groups, Forums, or Slack/Discord channels that are explicitly for the event. You can find these groups by jumping on the convention’s unique hashtag and asking around. If you can’t find any, start one! People always remember the person who organizes the party.
Every day, make an effort to say hello to someone new. They may be just as scared as you are. By taking the initiative, you’ll make it easier connect in person.
You can also change your Twitter handle to say that you’re attending so others can say hello.
Tools to Have Ready Before Your First Convention
The List of Names
Professional connectors have a list of names in their head. They laser-focus on these names and don’t leave until they make an introduction.
You can print out a list of names and cross them out as you meet them. If someone asks, share what you’re doing. Then flip the conversation and ask if there’s someone that you have to meet. Many are happy to make introductions.
The Business Card
I hate business cards, but I still carry them.
I spend $15 at Vistaprint for about 500 business cards—with just my name, my email, what I do. Five-hundred is plenty. I’ve never given out more than 50 at a convention. (Editor’s Note: If you’re a hipster like me, a local print shop can also do a great job and print on some pretty interesting paper to give your card personality while still maintaining a simplicity of design!)
Keep your card simple. Pick a default template, put in a quick logo, and call it a day. It should take you 30 minutes to set up and pay you back considerably.
At the end of the day, your card is just a way for people to get in touch with you again. As long as you’re not making faux pas choices like using comic sans or loading it up with cringe-inducing memes, most people don’t care.
The Big Goal
It’s not a good idea to attend a $2000 event to just to hang out. Attend every convention with a very specific goal. Maybe it’s networking with influencers or connecting with your game developer peers. Write it down and look it over periodically throughout the event.
If your goal is to get the personal email of 10 Twitch streamers, then maybe it’s not a good idea to spend all of your time testing all the newest AAA games.
Part Two: During A Convention
Dress the Part
I know you’re excited to show off your Team Instinct t-shirt (I know I am!). Editor’s Note: Team Valor, baby. But there is a time and place for that.
Geek Dating Expert Rami Nusier shares in his post on How to Dress like a Boss:
“If you dress like #$@#, even if you’re a great person, people will automatically assume you are what your clothes say you are. You can spend 20 minutes changing their minds, if they stick around, or you can make a small change and save yourself the hassle.”
Cut the Bad Attitude
Bad Attitude includes:
Saying it’s impossible.
Excuses include using introversion as a crutch, believing you have nothing interesting to say, or thinking networking is not for you and putting yourself down. Great game developers know they’re talented, and that confidence enhances their work. You can do the same with networking. Block out all the self doubt and act like you know what you’re doing. Fake it. You’ll be surprised how much it works.
Thinking you’re too busy to network.
Everyone has the same 24 hours in a day. You are not an exception.
Only want to speak to people “who can help me.”
It should go without saying to give everyone a chance. If they’re not a good fit, politely bow out. Judging a person solely on their job title is bad business and smacks of sleazy opportunism. You never know who can open doors for you or doors you can open for other people, whether that be business-related or otherwise.
Remembering That it Takes Practice
Remind yourself that each networking encounter is practice for the next one. If you didn’t make a connection, that’s okay. It’s part of the process.
Growing up, Stephen King hung his rejection letters on his wall. There were so many rejection letters that he had to switch to a railroad spike to secure them all. Editor’s Note: This is a common occurrence for all writers. Some of us have opted to turn our rejection letters into paper-mache artwork (that is also rejected).
Practice Your Introduction
These initial conversations decide if people want to connect with you in the future.
Be more personable by properly introducing yourself. Pretend the badge doesn’t exist. People aren’t job titles, and often, what you’re into is a better indicator of who you are than what you do.
Breaking the Ice
Start with questions that are easy for your conversation partner to answer and lets you learn about them quickly.
For networking, cut to the chase with:
- What brings you here?
- What are you most excited about working on?
- Who is someone remarkable that you’ve met today?
The Digital Opener
If you already introduced yourself online (this tip is in Part 1), it’ll be easier to say hello in person.
“Hey, it’s [name]. I follow you on twitter!”
“I noticed you’re with [company]. I connected with those guys online!”
The Name-Handshake method
At a recent conference where we all wore name tags with our professions, a man shouted at me from across the room. “Rocky—it’s great to meet you! We need to talk!”
This was the first time I met him. But it was incredibly off-putting how he acted as if he knew me, and frequently he’d say my name. It came off very impersonal. Like he’s following a script. The conversation felt like I was just another business card to add to his collection.
Avoid that “impersonal feeling” situation by developing a proper introduction.
This 2-step trick, which happens in a split-second, can quickly get their name without coming off like a robot.
Step 1: “I didn’t get your name.”
Step 2: Reach out your hand to shake it.
Even if it’s too far into the conversation, you can quickly step back and go, “I’m sorry. I didn’t properly introduce myself. My name is Rocky.” * extends hand to shake *
No one will feel insulted if you asked. I did it to one of the co-owners of the conference, who took it with a smile. Editor’s Note: I once exchanged, “What was your name again?” about five times between us with a fellow. Great conversation but we were both bad with names.
Practice the Conversation
Powerful networkers are considered captivating. When they connect with others, there’s a weird energy that creates an immediate bond. Powerful networkers approach conversations with curiosity, treating the speaker like they’re the most important person in the world.
Cal Fussman, New York Times bestselling author and one of the masters at interviews, has had conversations with many of the biggest cultural icons in the past 50 years, from Muhammad Ali to Clint Eastwood to Dr. Dre. After the filming of the movie 300, Cal was tasked to interview Gerald Butler, with not a lick of knowledge of who Gerald is. Because of Cal’s curiosity, by the end of the interview, Gerald was so captivated that he invited Cal to come over at any time to watch films together.
At one conference, I politely listened to a guy talk for 10 minutes straight without a word in edgewise. I thought this encounter was a bust. But a week later, he emails me to tell me this was the best conversation he ever had!
Active listening allows you to pay attention to information. Casual conversations lean into having one person talk while the other person is thinking about what to say next. Once you do that, you’re no longer paying attention and lose important details. Avoid this temptation.
Give room for silence. After your conversation partner finishes, take a second to think about what you want to say. This trick will make your conversations impactful.
Looking for Commonalities
Looking for common points of interest is a good way to make friends. “Your favorite game is Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening? So is mine!”
But in professional networking, it often distracts from your goals. Look back at your reasons for attending this convention (in Part 1) and decide on what important questions to ask.
If your intention was to connect with like-minded developers who want to change the indie scene, some questions might be:
What do you think the biggest problem with indie games is?
With your game, are you doing anything unique to get it in the hands of people?
If your goal of this conference is to connect with influencers, some questions may be:
Who do you follow online? Anyone in particular?
Have you gotten press for your game?
How did you get introduced to [influencer]?
Ask for Permission to Pitch
A quick way to turn people off is to jump straight into your pitch. Maybe it’s pitching your game, your idea, or even yourself. Avoid that icky feeling by asking the other person first.
Pause for a moment.
Then say the words, “Is it okay if I share with you what I’m working on?”
99% of the time, they’ll say yes.
Asking for permission turns it into a pattern interrupt. It allows you to slow the conversation down and makes your partner pay attention to the next thing you say.
This isn’t a “you tell me your idea, and I’ll tell you my idea.” Be sincerely interested in what they have to share. Even if it sounds like a bad idea, continue asking questions. Your conversation partner will appreciate you for helping them think through their ideas.
Staying in Touch
A few minutes has passed, and you’ve decided that this person is someone you want to know.
Follow up with: “Is it alright if I reach out to you in the future about [X]?”
This moment is where you exchange business cards or just swap contact information (email, Twitter, Facebook, Linkedin, or Skype ID).
Busy people will give you their company email. Something like support@[companyname].com.
If that’s the case, don’t take it personally. Some people carefully guard their email. Ask for there is another email you can use. If your conversation partner says no, ask for their Twitter, and try again in the future.
Practice the Goodbye
There’s so much to see at a convention and so little time. Knowing how to exit a conversation can give you a way out without making your partner feel bad.
Don’t overthink it. This isn’t a breakup. And if you already have their contact information, then there’s plenty to converse about later on.
Exit Strategy 1: Body Language
Tilt your body to where you want to be. Point your feet away from them. That shift in your body usually gives people a clue that it’s time to wrap things up.
Exit Strategy 2: Start Using Time Language
“There’s an event I want to check out in 30 minutes. I’d love to stay in touch!” Or, “There’s so many people here that I want to connect with! Let’s cross paths again in the future. I have your contact information, right?”
Exit Strategy 3: The Redirect Introduction
Sometimes, I tell the speaker to hold their thought, run a few steps and casually pull someone into the conversation. Then I say to the new person, “This is [person you’re trying to exit from]. They do x, y, and z. What do you do?”
When the conversation builds up to a point where you can leave, take it.
It’s an excellent way to keep the conversation going, benefits everyone (especially other introverts) and still allows you to make an exit gracefully.
Part Three: After a Game Convention
Imagine spending thousands of dollars to attend an event and hours of precious social energy chatting it up with amazing people. Then you return home and back to the daily grind with nothing to show for it. Thousands of dollars down the drain.
Following up turns you from a spectator who is just watching the event go by to the all-star player who everyone is rooting for. If you’re like me, you probably skimmed through this post and wondered why you need it.
No, the TL;DR isn’t, “Follow up – got it!”
STOP. Take a moment and read this.
Failing to correctly follow-up will turn your warm, in-person relationships into ice cold acquaintances. Below, I’ve outlined a system to help you properly follow-up to improve your chances of building relationships that benefit everyone.
“If you don’t have a systematized and automated Keep in Touch Strategy in place, you may, as the old saying goes, leave a lot of business on the table.” – Michael Port, author of Book Yourself Solid
Organizing Them Into a List
During the event, there are people you want to follow up with and those you wished you ignored.
I want to share this: Just because you didn’t make a strong connection in person doesn’t mean you have to ignore them.
During a convention, people are exhausted. A speaker may have interacted with hundreds of individuals before you came up to them. They may have run out of steam. They may also be terrible at small talk. That doesn’t mean you should write them off and ignore them.
To make this easier for you, sort people into three lists:
- People who I want to thank for the chat
- People who I want to help/they can help me
- People who I think are awesome, and I want to stay in touch
People Who I Want to Thank for the Chat
It never hurts to be polite. At GDC, I’ve had slot machine designers and real estate brokers drop their cards in my hand. I’ve also had tired developers who just didn’t have the mental energy to hold a conversation and excited wannabe game developers who only wanted to talk about their “innovative idea.” I sent them all a short email to thank them for chatting with me.
While it’s easy to ignore them, don’t close these doors. These people may connect you to others, or you’ll cross paths in the future. I followed up with an individual who worked in the insurance industry. They introduced me to their brother who was a programmer. He connected me with his friend who worked at Microsoft’s gaming division. You’re always five degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon and even fewer degrees to someone in the games industry.
People Who I Want to Help/They Can Help Me
I’m not the best at explaining things on the spot. I prefer to use visuals and draw diagrams, which is hard when you’re in-person and left your comically large whiteboard at home.
During a conversation, I take note of problems they have and how I can help. Or maybe they shared something that I want further details on.
People Who I think are Awesome, and I Want to Stay in Touch
Did you happen to meet a famous member of the press? Did a speaker’s presentation affect you? Did you love a Youtuber’s booth? Let them know!
This strategy is not a networking hack. It’s just good karma. Having been a speaker myself, I still get trickles of emails thanking me for speaking. That has turned into friendships later down the road.
(cough This also works for blog authors! Go ahead, say some nice words in the comment section!)
Post-conference, names will be forgotten and business cards get left behind. Following up allows you to quickly jolt their memory and bring you back into their view. Take the initiative. After the convention, follow-up within 24 to 48 hours. Unless you made the biggest impression, people would start forgetting the details.
If you don’t have an objective to the follow-up, then keep it short.
This works for two reasons:
1) You want to gauge their interest. If they’re busy, they might not reply until days/weeks later.
2) Sending a long email may look like work. After a long convention, the last thing people want to look at is someone’s work.
The goal of the first follow-up is to get the ball rolling for future conversations.
What to Write in Your Follow-up Email
Expect Nothing in Return
Follow the Philosophy of Giving. Author and speaker Zig Ziglar says, “You will get all you want in life if you help enough other people get what they want.” Expecting a reply or a favor may hurt you if it doesn’t happen. There could be a lot of reasons why they didn’t reply. They could be buried in emails and be too busy to respond, for example. Keep an open mind, continue helping others, and try again.
The Small Ask
Friends help friends. If you start your first digital conversation asking for favors and making requests, the recipient will feel used. During the in-person conversation, your partner may have just acted politely about doing you favors.
The follow-up email allows you to gauge their reaction.
- NO to “I need you to work with me and get me on your website.”
- NO to “Can you download my game and tell me what you think?”
- YES to “Can I take up like 5 minutes of your time with questions?”
Hey Dave! It was great to meet you on Thursday. You were HI-LAR-E-OUS! A hoot and let’s chat sometime!
There’s nothing in that exchange. It was fluff, and there was no real conclusion at the end.
“Let’s chat sometime,” translates to, “Let’s never talk again.”
Dave on the other end will probably reply, “K! thx!” and the conversation is dead.
Hey Dave, it was great meeting you at GDC. I really appreciate your thoughts on how to get PocketGamer to pay attention to me.
I took some time to look at my pitch emails. You’re totally right. They’re all ME-centric. Not a single line expressed why they should play. I’m going to re-write it and send it off on Friday. Want to know how it goes? I can share it with you too.
Let’s break this down.
- The author starts with giving a bit of appreciation to the recipient.
- The author references the original conversation.
- In a world where everyone has advice, the author took action. The author took Dave’s advice, looked at her pitch emails, and will try again.
- The author was clear about what’s happening next. She plans to send another pitch email on Friday.
- The author wraps it up with a small ask to gauge interest: “Want to know how it goes?” How can you say no to that?
Before You Hit Send
Set up email tracking so you know if your recipient received your email or not. You can use a free tool like Hubspot’s Sidekick (now called Hubspot Sales), which is a Chrome extension for your Gmail.
If you notice they haven’t opened your email after a while, you can ping them on Twitter or bump the email to let them know. You may have caught them on a busy day.
If they ignore you a second time, learn from your mistakes and move on.
Taking This Relationship to the Next Level
The whole purpose of networking is to build real relationships. A while back, I met a programmer who I hoped would turn into a life-long friend. We got on the phone, and he goes into a long pitch trying to turn me into an investor for his indie company. Gross. Recently, he reached out again—but in a very generic email blast to his entire address book looking to fill a non-paying marketing role.
I was being used.
The best business relationships become so intense that you’ll invite them to your BBQ and introduce them to your friends and family. Let’s go into how to make that happen.
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton was a powerful networker and amazing at the follow-up. Even when he was President, he’d frequently call people to check up on them. One anecdote: While filling out a crossword puzzle, the answer reminded him of a friend. Mr. Clinton ripped out the crossword puzzle and mailed it to his friend with a personal letter.
You don’t have to go extreme like mailing personal letters, but you can easily recreate that thoughtfulness with Twitter and emails.
Remember the Details
After a networking event, a CEO of a software company emailed me personally and asked if I made it safely back home to Philadelphia (where I lived at the time). He then referenced my girlfriend’s job, my cats, and a few other highlights from our chat. He was a person of high status, but he still took time to pay attention to me. He became one of my mentors.
You may have shared personal things during the conversations (Birthdays, children, celebrations, etc.). Pay close attention to those little details. After the conversation wraps up, write it somewhere. If someone mentions their birthday, open up your calendar. If someone says a hobby, put it on their business card.
Setting up Reminders
Building real relationships takes time. Professional networkers use systems to manage this process.
For someone with whom I want to connect with, I set a 30-day, 60-day, and 120-day reminder in my calendar.
On those dates, I send them another short email. The email typically consists of something thoughtful, something they talked about, or even just to catch up.
Another method is to use Boomerang for Gmail, which returns their email back to you every few weeks/months. That way, you can pick up right where you left off.
Let’s Get Ready to Mingle!
Networking can build long-lasting relationships. If you followed me from Parts 1 and 2, there’s a lot of systems I use to build these powerful relationships. By using systems to network, you’ll spend less time in your head and more time making powerful connections.
If you’re still struggling to figure this all out, you’re in luck! The easiest way to get the ball rolling is right here by leaving a comment. Let’s start a conversation!
H/T to Rocky Kev for writing all of this content originally as a three-part series for the BSM blog!
If you enjoyed this article, feel free to let us know! We love making new friends here at Black Shell Media, so don’t be a stranger.