Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: How Can I Stand Out at a Huge Convention?

By Nicole Dieker April 21st, 2015

I’m going to an industry expo. There are over 500 exhibitors/attendees, all of whom could be clients for my freelance services. I know I can’t meet everyone at the expo, but I have access to their email addresses and can get in touch with them afterwards to chat about how we can work together. What’s the best way to do this?

—The Good Kind of Expo(sure)

I love conventions. Have I told you how much I love conventions? Last year, I wrote a piece for The Magazine about how going to conventions has consistently moved my career forward. In fact, I ended up landing two clients as a direct result of attending conventions. So to help answer your question, let me tell you a story about my own experiences.

In 2007, I went to the Modern Language Association (MLA) Annual Convention, in Chicago, so I could go to the exhibit hall and pitch my skills to the exhibitors. I did not have a badge for this convention, by the way. On the advice of a friend, I just crashed it. I wore a suit and walked quickly past the gatekeeper into the crowd. (I do not recommend crashing an expo, and I’ve never done it since. It is one of those youthful indiscretions that makes for a great story.)

Once I was inside the exhibit hall, I began networking. This is often the hardest part of being at a convention. It is easier to gate-crash an expo hall than it is to walk up to a stranger and start a conversation, but I did it. I had my pitch in hand: “Hi! I’m graduating with an MFA, and I’m interested in publishing jobs. Do you have a minute to talk about what you do and what a person like me could do to get started?”

Not everybody agreed to speak with me, but several people were happy to talk, and a few of them even gave me their contact information and told me to reach out after the convention about job opportunities. So I followed up with each person.

I love the old trick of taking someone’s business card, turning it over, and writing down where you met them, what you talked about, and what your next step is (“Send resume, ask about open publishing jobs”) so you have everything in place when it comes time to do your post-expo emailing.

That’s what you should do. Talk to as many people as you can, have your pitch practiced and ready to go, and follow up with anyone who gives you a business card or invites you to continue the discussion after the convention.

What you shouldn’t do is walk up to an exhibitor and lead with “I’m looking for work.” Everyone at an expo hall is there to make connections for career purposes, whether they’re freelancers or company representatives. They already know there’s an unspoken undercurrent of “want to hire me/buy my product?” running through every interaction.

Instead, start with some variation of “tell me about yourself,” and turn it into an actual conversation. If they’re interested in working with you, they’ll invite you to continue the conversation after the convention is over.

While we’re on the subject of what not to do: Don’t mass email all 500 exhibitors, even if the expo provided you with a list of their email addresses. The exhibitors will know, and it won’t reflect well on you. Follow up with the people you meet with a personal touch, and understand that you won’t be able to meet with everyone.

So you’ve gone to your event, you’ve met people, and you’ve followed up. Here’s one more tip to help you make the most of your convention experience: Go back the next year.

With conventions, you want to play the long game. This year, you’re going to walk into an exhibit hall and see a room full of strangers. Next year, you’re going to go back and see people you know. You’ll be able to catch up and talk about how your respective businesses have fared over the past year. You might end up grabbing lunch or hanging out at the bar. A person who remembers you from a previous convention might say “Hey, I should introduce you to a friend of mine who is looking to hire a freelancer.”

That’s exactly how I ended up writing for Boing Boing. I had been going to a creativity convention called Intervention for four years. I knew many of the other attendees and exhibitors, including the co-founder, Oni Hartstein. When I arrived at Intervention in 2013, Hartstein said, “You have to meet Mark Frauenfelder. He’s an editor at Boing Boing, and I bet he would love to work with you.” She turned out to be right.

Hartstein probably wouldn’t have made that connection if it had been my first year at Intervention and we hadn’t gotten to know each other yet. Putting in the time to talk to people at conventions or expos—really talk to them, don’t just ask for jobs—and going back year after year helps you build relationships that could lead to work down the line.

Trust me on this one. After all, I have a lot of experience with conventions.

Nicole Dieker wants to get as many people excited about conventions and expos as possible. They are life-changing. For more advice, send your Ask a Freelancer questions to

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