Summitry, punditry, wizardry
A big international conference, such as last week’s NATO summit in Bucharest, can seem bewildering. So here are a few tips on how to crack it.
First, the more important the person the less useful the meeting. Getting up before breakfast to watch George Bush make a speech is unlikely to be a good use of time. You will be locked into the auditorium well in advance (and probably banned from using your mobile phone or BlackBerry). Then you will have to wait for ages before you are allowed to leave. The speech will be on the White House website anyway.
If questions are being taken, catch the chairman’s eye well before the end of the platform speeches—as close to the beginning of the session as you can is good. And keep his attention. Then have a really well-phrased question prepared.But informal meetings are usually the most useful. You are best off catching up with old friends (especially if you have planned a few key rendezvous in advance). Hanging about in hotel bars late at night is where you get the real story. Advisers to important people tend to be more interesting than the bigshots themselves (particularly if you can get them to show off a bit about what they know).
Find the hotels where the key delegations are staying and head there to make new contacts. The best way is to be audacious: claim acquaintance on the lines of “I saw you at the last NATO summit. Don’t you work for the secretary-general?”
This sort of chat-up line is unlikely to offend anyone, especially when followed by an offer of a drink. Follow up with “I don’t understand—but I bet you do—why….”
Don’t express your own opinions on hot topics until you have a rough idea of what your new friend thinks. Express amazement and gratitude at even the most trivial insight in the hope of getting something better. If stuck with a bore or a nonentity, grasp your phone and pretend to take a non-existent call.
Don’t settle for a pre-arranged programme. If you are a journalist, you risk ending up never leaving the press centre, going from briefing to briefing where people will try to persuade you that black is white, “soon” is “now” and that Germany and America see the world the same way.
At the risk of sounding cynical, it is a good rule of thumb to disbelieve anything and everything that officials, diplomats and spin doctors say, at least for a few hours. Truth at big events is a manufactured commodity, not an absolute value.
The people who run the world know that if they can get the wire agencies and news networks all to report a particular line, it stands a good chance of becoming the received wisdom. This is particularly important when all sides want to cover up a nasty disagreement (such as the one at the recent NATO summit at Bucharest).
If there is a formal dinner, scout out the seating arrangements first. If you have been put next to someone boring, quietly switch your name card to somewhere more interesting. If you get caught, claim to be looking for the loo, or the exit.
Finally, try a bit of mischief to liven things up. If you meet a Chinese diplomat, pretend to be under the impression that he comes from Taiwan. Praise effusively the “Republic of China” for its stalwart stance in the cause of freedom. The more they splutter, the more you can pretend not to understand.