A Geek’s Guide To Con Conversations

Posted on July 6, 2012 by

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You got tickets to Comic-Con? That’s amazing! You are about to visit the Mecca of Geek. You are going to be in the presence of major talent from TV, film, comics and more. There is so much to see and do at a con, from panels, to costume contests, to catching deals at the vendor tables.

I have only been going to cons for a few years now but the one thing I have come to love above everything else, is the opportunity to shake the hand of some of my favorite people in the industry and talk to them for even a couple of minutes.

The problem for me, however, is the part of me that threatens to collapse into a quivering mass of geekiness and adulation when meeting the person that became that iconic character, created that timeless universe, composed that stellar score. If you have been to a con, you’ve seen it. Or, if you are like me, you have almost become it.

The fanboy/fangirl.

Listen, there is nothing wrong with having a passion for your favorite show, comic book, or movie. And most of the guests you meet will kindly listen to your fanboy praise and questions for a minute or so. However, if you want to connect with these guests and have a real conversation with them, then you have to take care in your approach.

After several cons, I have committed to several key points that I follow when meeting guests. These may be obvious to some of you but I would like to share them in hopes that you might find yourself connecting on a more personal level with the celebrities you have come to love.

First, let me skip to Conversation Tip #1: They are people too!

We will come back to that. For now:

PREPARATION

Preparation is as important as what you say. If you are not ready to go when you show up to the con, you may never get further than a hello. These points will help immensely when it finally comes time to talk to people.

1. Do Your Research

You know that Nathan Fillion was Mal Reynolds in Firefly. You love his work in Castle. But did you know that his first long-term gig was Two Girls, a Guy and a Pizza Place? Or that he is in the upcoming Joss Whedon version of Much Ado About Nothing?

A little time spent on Google, especially IMDB, can give you insight into where the actor has been and where she is going. Even more than projects they have done in the past, people love to talk about their upcoming work. Head to Wiki or their fan site if you like but like most of us, celebrities like to keep their private life separate from their professional. They are still as excited about new life events (new marriage, babies, etc.) as anyone else, however, so keep those personal questions in reserve.

This step is especially important for lesser-known guests. Knowing more about the guests you talk with demonstrates that you have an interest in their work.

Preparation will help you avoid missteps like, “So what show were you in?” or “What are you up to now?” I made that last mistake twice at Trek Expo. Kate Vernon and I were able to get past it.

LeVar Burton totally called me on it.: “Well, ask your wife; she’s the one following me on Twitter.” (I now follow him on Twitter.)

Having several talking points in your arsenal when you walk into the con will help you adapt to the direction of the conversation and increases your chances of finding a topic that interests both of you.

2. Bring Breath Mints

This may sound like a no-brainer, but trust me. Nothing will bring an exchange to an end faster than getting in someone’s face with Bantha-breath. Keep a case of breath mints or breath strips handy and, when you’re getting ready to dive into the hall, pop one in your mouth. No need to be self-conscious about your breath; just be courteous!

George Takei signs autographs in Dallas.

3. Scanners On Full 

Once you enter the con, the first thing you want to do is get a feel for the room. I know that you have two or three guests at the top of your list that you are dying to talk to but avoid making a bee-line for them.

Take a walk around the room. Note where guests are sitting. This is also a great time to observe their demeanor. Are some guests chatting more with fans than others? Those would be the ones you will have the greatest chance with. Keep them in mind.

Pay attention to which guests have long lines at their tables and which have less traffic. Remember, they are there to meet fans but they are also ‘working.’ You need only check the price of autographs for some people to know that. As a result, guests with long lines are poor choices for conversations because they will be trying to get through autographs as quickly as possible. If you want to go for it anyway, go ahead; just be prepared to buy an autograph, and be ready for brief face time.

Sound designer & editor Ben Burtt.

I recommend seeking out those tables with few attendees around them. It is a fact of conning that more well-known guests will attract more attention than lesser-known ones. As a result, you can find many interesting and talented guests that are being overlooked and start with them. With young and lesser-known guests you will often have the opportunity for a longer interaction. The guest will no doubt appreciate the interest you are showing in their work, as well!

I had a wonderful conversation with Julie Caitlin Brown (Babylon 5′s Na’Toth) when she had a lull in visitors to her table. We spoke about the uniqueness of Babylon 5 and her role in it, as well as, her current work in production and management.

In contrast, if I had waited in line to speak with Jonathan Frakes (Will Riker, The Next Generation), I would have had only moments to talk with him, reducing the interaction to a few brief comments and pleasantries. As much as I wanted to talk with Frakes, I value the interaction with Brown over the few words I would have ended up with if I had waited for Frakes.

A side note: keep your smartphone handy in case you find yourself with an opportunity to talk to someone you had not researched prior. Just don’t do it while standing right in front of them!

THE CONVERSATION

Here we are. You have found a guest that is not too busy at the moment and appears available to talk. Okay, what do you say and what should you keep in mind?

1. They Are People Too

This is huge. If you take nothing else from this list, remember this one. It is easy to get star-struck and find yourself overwhelmed in the presence of someone whose work you love. But remember, they are a person. They have a family. Friends. Bills. Laundry day. They have a kick-ass job, but they are a person and are as capable of having a normal conversation as anyone else.

More than that, you are as capable of having a normal conversation with them as you are with your friends!

If you approach the guest with this understanding firmly in place, it will be much easier for you to connect with them.

2. Engage!

Okay, this one is easy, but it could easily go awry. Just say “Hi!” You need not be flashy or dramatic; alternatively, avoid a nervous avalanche of words. Just greet them and introduce yourself. Some guests will take the lead, which makes your job a little easier. If they do not, offer them your name, thank them for coming, and…

3. Find Common Ground

You will generally have about 10-20 seconds when you start a conversation to show that you are not a fangirl. My recommendation? Start with what you are most familiar with about their work but pay attention to their answers and reaction. If they are on ‘autopilot,’ giving generic responses, it is time to shake things up.

Compliment their work: “I found your portrayal of Tom Zarek engaging and thought the character was a great foil for Roslin.” This may evolve into a deeper conversation about the character; if so, great! Feel free to pursue that line as long as you are both interested.

If they offer a kind, “Thank you,” however, and do not seem interested in talking about that subject further, be prepared to switch gears. This is where your research will save you.

Current projects. Previous roles. Hobbies. Where they are currently living and/or working. These are all possible avenues you can take. Take our conversation with Michael Hogan and Kate Vernon (both from Canada). After discussing the Tighs briefly, I mentioned my desire to see Vancouver’s film-making scene. This comment led to a discussion about Toronto’s film-making scene, as well as, the best time of the year to visit British Columbia. Yes, we even discussed the weather, how Canada has been as off-balance as much of the U.S.

This may sound like a boring conversation; in actuality, these are the conversations where you begin to connect with the guest and learn a bit more about one another. They may also lead to more intriguing topics than you had anticipated.

If you just cannot find a topic that takes off, be prepared to take your leave. Sometimes you just cannot find a connection and that is okay. More on your exit strategy later.

4. Be Honest

Michael Hogan is currently in Teen Wolf. I learned this the night before Trek Expo when we caught part of an episode on MTV2. When talking with him I mentioned that we saw that he is now on said show.

“Oh, do you watch the show?” he asked.

I had to be honest and say that we caught it once but did not watch it.

I recommend honesty. If you have not seen/read their new project, do not be ashamed to say so. If you plan to check it out go ahead and let them know. Otherwise, lying about it could lead to an awkward situation that you are not prepared for. It is also disrespectful to the guest.

We all have our individual tastes. Teen Wolf is not for me. I said as much–respectfully–and we moved on to other things.

5. Share Yourself (but not too much!)

Most of the guests at cons love to interact with their fans. They are often as interested in the kind of people we are as we are about them. As I mentioned earlier about our conversation with Hogan and Vernon, it was my comment about wanting to see Vancouver that launched us into a more personal conversation.

Do not be afraid to talk about interesting tidbits about yourself. These can help keep the conversation going and open up new avenues of discussion. If those little facts are related to the conversation, so much the better!

Be careful, however, of getting too in-depth about yourself. I have seen many people, when talking to guests (and other fans), get too focused on themselves and their own interests. Keep the conversation open and both of you will enjoy it much more.

6. Take Interest In Their Interests

This will require some active listening on your part and will help to add variety to the discussion.

If you pay attention during the conversation, the guest will often make comments that could indicate other interests or motivations of theirs. Mention of locations where they filmed their projects; how the screen is much different than theatre; how writing comic books was a welcome break from writing novels. All of these seeming innocuous comments are opportunities to delve deeper into the person’s life and motivations, rather than just their career.

What did they like about that location? Was it the people, the landscape, the architecture?

How much theatre have they done? Did they prefer it to TV/film? Are they going back to the stage?

What made comic book writing a welcome break? How do the genres differ from a writer’s perspective? Is it a permanent change?

These are all open-ended questions that allow the guest to open up more about themselves personally, providing you a richer insight into the individual.

7. Make It About The Guest

This plays heavily on Conversation Tip #1 and is what will set you apart from the fanboys and girls.

You may have loved Jewel Staite’s character of Kaylee on Firefly, but you must remember that Jewel is not Kaylee! Actors portray dozens (sometimes hundreds) of characters, and while they may remember many roles fondly, their fondness for the role is often for the time they had on set, not the actual stories they acted out on screen.

One mistake I often see fans make is assuming that an actor recalls in detail the stories and arcs their character experienced in the course of a series. In truth, many actors do not even watch much of their work; as a result, their recollection of events in a series may be fuzzy, let alone what occurred in episode X of season Y of show Z.

There is nothing wrong with asking specific questions like that but keep them limited. Also be prepared to respectfully remind the guest of the instance to which you are referring. I have watched many fans get practically offended that the guest did not know what they were talking about and this is just unfair. I don’t remember many of the specific events from my job five years ago, either.

One way you can avoid this pitfall is to focus more on those personal interests I mentioned above. Showing interest in their entire career and, more than that, them personally shows that you have an interest in what they have to say as a person, not as the character they portrayed on your favorite show from six years ago.

We’ll even talk with fans!

THE EXIT

You are doing great. You have started and held a conversation with a guest for several minutes now. You both seem engaged and interested in what the other has to say and you have done a good job avoiding the mistakes I mentioned previously.

But all good things must come to an end, including your interaction with this guest. You are not the only fan waiting to talk to them, after all! Here are some tips on your graceful exit.

1. Be Aware Of Your Surroundings

This is the other end of your initial survey. Even after you have found an available guest and started a conversation with them, you need to remain aware of what is going on around you.

Are there people waiting for autographs? Be considerate of these folks because they are the ‘paying customers.’ Step aside and acknowledge them, allowing them to get their autograph. If it is only one or two people you may be able to step aside and wait politely until they are done getting their autograph before continuing your conversation. The guest will often give you an indication of whether this is a possibility.

If someone else is waiting to talk to the guest as well, offer to include them in the conversation. I know you want to have one-on-one time with the guest but do not shy away from sharing it with another fan. It will offer you that much more time with them.

In either of these cases (and potential other situations) the guest may offer you a farewell to signal that the conversation is over. If that happens, be ready to…

2. Know When To Get Out

Nothing will sour a great conversation like letting it fizzle out and leaving awkward silence at the tail end. Insisting to continue the conversation after the guest has indicated they are turning their focus to other guests is even worse.

You started this conversation. Continue that confident approach by knowing when to end it.

It is always good to end on a high note, whether it be a humorous comment, thought-provoking discussion, or otherwise. Also take note of any verbal or non-verbal cues offered by the guest that the conversation is winding down. This could be any number of things but may include glancing past you to other waiting fans, checking the time, saying it was nice talking to you, mentioning that they have a panel coming up later, etc.

In actuality, your conversation will likely last between three and seven minutes. You do not have to time it but it is good to remain aware of how long the conversation has been going. It is better to be left wanting more than to overstay your welcome.

3. Jump!

It is time to go. Thank them for their time and let them know what a pleasure it was to talk with them. Also let them know how much you appreciate their attending the con.

If you both appear comfortable with it, cap it off with a handshake or fist bump and a smile.

It may be disappointing that your conversation is now over but the great thing is, there will be many other guests around. Find your next ‘target’ and set thrusters on full!

In truth, your opportunities for conversations with guests will be hit or miss. Some guests may be more accommodating of this approach than others. It may also depend a great deal on the setup and schedule of the con. If you miss with one guest, do not get discouraged; there is always another one nearby!

More than the panels, the vendors, or the cosplay, the opportunity to interact one-on-one with guests is my favorite part of going to conventions. These brief but meaningful interactions are worth more to me than any autograph. Whether you are just getting started with cons or are a veteran, my hope is that some of these pointers will help you have a more memorable experience the next time you go to a con.

Take what works for you. Tailor the approach to fit your needs. Never forget Conversation Tip #1: They are people too!

I will let you in on a little secret; most of these suggestions can be applied to your everyday conversations, too!

Have your own suggestions and pointers? Put them in the comments section!

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