10 Strategies Toward Success (or Survival) at the AAN Convention

july 23, 2014  12:30 pm
Photo by AAN

AAN asked the 2014 Convention Scholarship recipients to write about their experience in Nashville. This is the first in a series that will run over the next few weeks.
Sam Allard here. I'm a staff writer for Scene Magazine in Cleveland. More to the point: Until last weekend, I was an AAN Conference virgin. Here are a few tips I picked up along my inaugural ride.

  1. Accessorize in geographically specific apparel/paraphernalia: For much of Sparkle and TwAANg, I padded about in a blue and orange Cleveland Cavaliers ball cap. Due in large part to the feverish interest in and about Cleveland vis-à-vis the return of his Royal Highness LeBron James last weekend, my hat served as an instant conversation starter. I report in all sincerity that at least 60 percent of my conversations at the Sheraton (and beneath the neon-lit signage of Broadway's wobblier bars) began with a mention of my hat or of the then-current LeBron fanaticism back home. If you're a first-timer at an AAN conference, hats or shirts (or elaborate props) related to the sports teams from your region will no doubt get the ball rolling on many otherwise awkward or rote exchanges. (Who do you work for? Etc.) If you're uncomfortable with pro athletics, clothing styles emblematic of your region should serve a similar - if less immediately effective - purpose. The Big Sky folks might try cowboy boots or lugging big game behind them everywhere they go. The Northern California set might consider outfitting themselves entirely in hemp. In truth, any outrageous "statement" item - clown shoes, just off the top of my head - should garner, at the very least, some weird glances. And because there are many journalists afoot, chances are someone will approach you to determine just what exactly's going on.

  2. Attend at least one panel you think looks boring or stupid or irrelevant. The dear AAN folks coordinating the various conference activities for the most part have attempted to diversify your options during a given time slot. (I conducted no interviews on this matter; purely observational). As a writer, I was obviously most interested in the long form panel, the Structured Storytelling thing with Melissa from Vox.com and one or two other editorially focused conversations. Turns out I gleaned some really interesting anecdotal material from a social media forum, and felt like I had returned to my favorite college lecture hall during Paul Taylor's Saturday morning keynote about demographics, a presentation I fully intended to skip. Broaden your horizons, elasticize your comfort zone, etc.

  3. To the extent that you can, intersperse beer with hard liquor: AAN seems to understand that a true and unlimited open bar would wreak havoc upon, e.g., America's Country Music Hall of Fame. So the two-bar set-up with suspiciously slow bartenders smacked of intentionality, and good on the Association for the foresight. You, then, must monitor the line with great vigilance. I might suggest stocking up on the clear liquor early. Once the crowd arrives, get your drink and just immediately return to the back of the line, from which location you can happily mingle and network and sip. Once you've reached the perpetual-queuing portion of the evening, beer is probably the safest ticket.

  4. Do some pre-networking, for Pete's sake: If you're a writer, contact other writers who wrote stories that jazzed you up in the previous months. If you're an editor, reach out to others who seem to be wrangling dynamite freelancers, cooking up innovative special issues and/or demonstrating a Hermione-Grangeresque capacity for time management. Ditto if you're a designer and have been noticing some bitchin' covers from a particular paper or set of papers. Reach out prior to the conference and set up a time for coffees or drinks. The more contacts you acquire, the more friends you'll make and the radder you'll look at AAN events. The ultimate purpose (it has become painfully clear to me) is looking rad and in-demand at AAN events.

  5. Do some post-networking: Send an email or Facebook message to folks with whom you enjoyed yourself. Arrange for a midyear summit or tryst. Attend the conference in subsequent years. I submit that one's coolness can only be cumulative at events like these.

  6. To that end, stay abreast of AAN throughout the year. The website regularly features notable cover stories and special issues on its website; and though the conference is an ideal time to assemble and put heads together and be merry and all that jazz, the cogs will already be spinning if you've seen the hottest recent stuff/events at other pubs.

  7. Take notes (and share with your colleagues when you return). Pass on the highlights from your favorite panels. If you went with a large group, plan a lunch or happy hour meeting to talk about ways to incorporate some of the ideas that resonated with your staff. This is getting sort of didactic and less fun. Apologies.

  8. Enjoy the host city. Seek recommendations for food and strong drink from staffers at the home paper. Nashville Scene editor Jim Ridley proved extremely helpful on that score.

  9. Participate in forums to maximize coolness. NO DUH.

  10. Apply for an AAN Convention Scholarship. Bit of a plug here, but I'm fortunate enough to have received a Next Generation Fellowship for the 2014 shindig; and my employers were so delighted by AAN's contribution that they ponied up the remaining costs so I could stay at the conference hotel, which meant I got to savor the Star Warsy atrium and wake up at a reasonable hour. At the risk of boring you all to tears, it also meant that I avoided a three-night stay at the Rodeway Inn, three miles east of Nashville, which included sterling customer reviews on the order of "Toilet finally started working!" The upshot, of course, is that AAN really wants you to attend and to have a positive experience. By taking these 10 simple tips to heart, there's no reason you won't.

See you all in Utah.
Sam Allard is a staff writer for Cleveland Scene and a 2014 AAN Convention Scholarship recipient.