How to Meet Your Hero
Here’s a question from the mailbag:
I’m going to a conference for the first time, in part to meet an author that inspired me who’s speaking there. Do you have any advice on what to do and, mainly, what NOT to do when I meet him?
I know that I’d love to talk with him about a lot of things, but I don’t wanna bother him. To be honest, I’m a little anxious. How can I help make this more natural, without killing the authenticity? Am I already killing it by thinking about it and asking for your guidance?
I don’t know that anyone has traveled and paid for an event just to meet me, but I have had the good fortune to meet people who are fans of my work. It always feels good to meet the people who like what I do and it’s easy to be nice to them, since their purchases make my career possible. Often they’re truly fun and friendly to hang around.
But I have had some awkward experiences too where people expect a little too much from me, forgetting that the dynamic isn’t symmetric: they’ve known my work intimately for months or years, but I’ve just met them for the first time and it’s impossible for me to catch up in just an hour, much less a few minutes.
Here’s what I advise:
- Set your expectations low. People who make great books, movies or games are just people of course, but in our minds as fans we build up an image that is impossible to live up to (Some of the marketing artists and makers do fuels this of course). A book or song can be perfect, but people never are. It’s worth looking over the 12 reasons you should never meet your hero as many people tell disappointing tales of meeting their lifelong idol. I myself have met some of my heroes, and I’m convinced if you set your expectations right, it can be a thrill. The trap is many people expect far too much and end up unnecessarily disappointed.
- Be patient and simple. Most speakers at events are accessible directly after they give their presentation. A crowd forms near the stage and fans take turns asking questions or getting autographs. Have one thing you want to ask or say, and plan for that to be the totality of the experience. A simple “I’m a big fan of your work and it has inspired me. Thanks for doing what you do” goes a long way. No one tires of hearing this. If you want a picture or an autograph, that’s great. Or if a burning question has been on your mind, ask away. Let that be your one request. But after that, let someone else have their moment. If your hero isn’t speaking but merely attending, politely introduce yourself when you see them in a hallway and then make your request (don’t wait for a perfect opportunity, since at a big event you might not even see them more than once).
- In social situations, leave them a way out. At smaller events, or if you’re lucky to spend significant time with them, always make sure they have a way to escape and that you haven’t cornered them into spending an evening with you hovering over their shoulder like a gregarious hummingbird all night long. If you do want more time with them, collaborate with another fan or two so the offer comes from a friendly group and not a solo stranger. If your hero wants to spend all night talking to you or share a meal, or have you join his/her social circle that evening, that’s great, but be polite about not assuming you’re their new personal companion.
- Contact them online, before the event, if you want a dialog. Email has the tremendous benefit that recipients can respond at the time they wish. There’s much less social pressure in email, whereas at an event, there is tremendous social and time pressure on famous people. Email them before the event with a very well thought out comment or question, and/or a strong thanks for their work and how it inspired you. Mention you’ll be at the event and hope to meet them. Odds are very good you’ll get a reply if your email is thoughtful, well written and not too long. Pick one clear question to ask if you have one, rather than a litany of little ones. I get a lot of email, but the odds of getting a reply rise dramatically for the ones that are well-written, thoughtful and ask clear questions (that they know I haven’t answered elsewhere). Many blog posts here on scottberkun.com come from reader questions, which I love to get.
- Bring a copy of their book, album or whatever they make. It’s impossible for me not to notice someone in the audience who is holding a copy of one of my books. I can’t help but want to talk to them, as they’re visually putting up a flag that they’re a fan and probably want an autograph. I might feel differently if everyone in the audience showed up one day with a copy of my books (that might be a little terrifying but I’d like to find out of course). I don’t know of any musician or writer who doesn’t respond with the same undeniable joy when they see a stranger with the book or CD that took years to make in their hands.
Great post! I am a Project Manager involved with our local chapter of PMI. We recently held a day-long event – and I recommended a few speakers to our committee based on my enjoyment of their blogs or books.
When I saw who had accepted the invites to speak I reached out to them, expressed my appreciation of their material and my anticipation in meeting them as I was on the committee running the event.
Most were gracious – one asked if we could eat lunch together. I bought a book from a keynote and had it signed. I thoroughly enjoyed their presentations – and my enjoyment of their blogs is heightened now because I know them (a little) personally.
The antithesis is one person who did not respond at all – in fact was late to the event as they had the wrong day and only because they were coming early to visit family did they make the event at all.
No heroes, but inciteful people who did either grow or diminish in my estimation from the personal contact.
Nice post, Scott.
As Neil Peart wrote:
I can’t pretend a stranger is a long-awaited friend.
Remember that when you meet a hero. I do.
Great advice. And ditto on the “set your expectations low” part. I unexpectedly met a very well-known ME a few years ago at a conference, said something complimentary (but not gushing) and he looked at me like I was something under his shoe. Oh well!
Scott – I have gone through that experience a couple of times…including when you were speaking in Dublin at the PMI conference a couple of years ago. You’d been interviewed on stage, and I had the opportunity to raise a point for discussion. A bit later in the day I saw you wandering through the venue and meekly approached. The question I had asked gave me a segue to a further conversation. But I made a point of only taking a few minutes, in deference to your time, and anyone else around who might want to speak with you…but we did cross paths a couple of times again during the event. The main point being, you need to be respectful of the person in terms of what you say and the time you take. I have come across and connected with a couple of other prominent authors / thinkers in my field (project management) and, having taken the same approach, been comfortable engaging with them the next time we crossed paths, even if that was months and continents apart from our initial meeting.
Hi Terry! Glad to know I wasn’t a jerk to you :)
Ironically I almost never have the nerve to go up to speakers and ask them questions later. They often seem so harried, and if there’s a line of people waiting to chat with them I feel like I’m in the way. I often prefer to just send them an email with my thoughts and questions, which as I mention in the post, frees them up to answer at their leisure and to hopefully give a more thoughtful answer than I’d get on the fly.
holy wow this is so true. i wish i’d read this a year ago when i thought it was ok to flatter one of my heroes to the point of becoming something probably like the plague to him. love is nutty.