At a conference two years ago, I got lost and ended up at my group pitch very late and very hysterical. When it came time for my pitch, the agent assured me there was nothing to worry about and broke the ice with me in a discussion about one of our mutually favorite books, The Secret Life of Bees. I was incredibly grateful. This calmed me down enough to discuss the synopsis of my own novel without hyperventilating.

It’s a cliché to say it this way, but “agents are people too.” They get nervous when meeting strangers, just like the rest of us. If you shift the focus from yourself, you may end up accomplishing what a pitch session is designed to do—help you and the agent decided whether you’d work well together.

It’s a different approach. Most of the time, writers come in, blurt out their story for ten minutes, and leave no time for questions or conversation. The submission package—specifically the query letter and first few pages of the book—is where the real selling begins. But that comes later. First things first, try pitching as if the story is not the most important thing.

When you first sit down with the agent, focus on making her comfortable with you. Say hi, ask her how she is doing today, and whether she has attended this conference before. Take a deep breath, give her time to reply. Express an interest in her personally by asking a few questions about books she’s represented or her favorite genres. Pay close attention to her answers. These may help guide you in writing a query letter if she requests to see more.

After a natural pause, you can then begin to give her the stats of your novel: the genre, the word count, the setting, and the (working) title. Practice a one-line tagline. (Here’s the one I used for my first novel: Two lovers are caught in the throes of a myth that’s threatened to separate them forever.)

Now you might want to ask her what more she wants to know about your story. Try to anticipate what questions she might ask and think of your answers ahead of time. If she doesn’t have any questions, then you can launch into your pitch at this point. Regardless, when you finally get to your pitch, try honing it down to two minutes. Throw in a quick sketch of your main character and what his or her main story goal is. Don’t forget to include some of the major events that make your plot shine. Above all, be sure to share what element(s) of your novel make it stand out from the pack. Does your novel have an unusual or exotic setting? Is your character larger-than-life or incredibly empathetic? Does your plot make your readers’ mouths water in anticipation?

Find a way to tell the agent what makes your story special without using any adjectives or disclaimers or wild claims. What I mean is, telling an agent that your story is “edge-of-your-seat thrilling beyond your wildest dreams” might get you in a heap of trouble. How can you truly be sure your book can live up to your hype?

If you are pitching this year at any conferences, I wish you the very best of success. Don’t forget to relax and have fun. Remember, she’s only one agent. If you don’t get a request for a partial or full, there are hundreds of others you can query later.