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Conference Networking Secrets
More than 27 million people attend conferences, trade shows, and conventions each year, and according to Meetings & Conventions magazine, the number one reason they attend is to socialize. It’s no wonder that in their brochures and on their websites, conference organizers take pains to emphasize the exciting networking opportunities this event offers.
But many potential participants avoid conference events all together because they are intimidated by the size of the event and their lack of internet skills. Whereas those who go there often do not take advantage of what the event has to offer because they do not know who to talk to or what to say. They wander around the floor without a plan and meet people at random, missing important opportunities for deep connections that can make a big difference in their business.
Effective communication at a large event like a trade show or conference comes down to managing your experience by creating a cohesive plan, making the most of your resources, and using your time wisely.
Here are 7 tips to maximize your online efforts at your next big event:
1) Expand your search for unusual events. It may be a given that you should appear every year at a major trade show for your industry, but you should also develop other events that your target market attends. The more certain the meeting is, the less likely your competitors will be there, and the more likely you will be able to differentiate yourself. You can choose a specific demographic, such as women or obstetricians, professionals, such as lawyers or doctors, or a specific interest, such as sports or fine dining.
One year when I wanted to complete my business consulting practice, I went to the annual meeting of the American Cheese Society, which puts on the main square the days of cheese production, sellers and distributors culminated in the Cheese Festival (if you want gourmet). cheese, believe me, I have to do it!). Not only did I have a great time learning how new companies work, I also won several projects from companies that had never met a business consultant, but needed one.
To find trade shows or conferences in your industry or region, check Trade Show Week (www.tradeshowweek.com) or Trade Show News (www.tsnn.com). Also search the Internet for associations in your favorite topics or specialties, then check their websites for information about their annual conference.
2) Define your goals. Think about what you hope to gain from the meeting. Many people go to find information and inspiration, but the more you define what you want, the more you will be able to decide how to spend your time.
For example, last year, I went to a meeting on behalf of a client and set clear goals: “To find out what other companies are doing to reach the Puerto Rican population and identify potential partners to help my client enter the market.” Having such a clear goal helped me narrow down the sessions to attend, speakers to meet, how to introduce myself to them, what to gather, and questions to ask my friends.
Having clear goals makes it easier to manage in making the right connections and engaging in good conversations. Otherwise, your online efforts will not be sustainable and important conversations will go nowhere.
3) Don’t sell. Unless you’re attending a true shopping event whose purpose is to bring buyers and sellers together to place orders and engage, many meetings are set up to share information and network. In such cases, people are reluctant to buy. No one is walking around thinking, “I’m really in the mood to find a consultant today” or “I’m not leaving until I’ve spent millions on computer software.” So avoid turning your conversation into a sales pitch, even if you know for sure that you can help.
It is better to use the time to meet face-to-face with the participants to establish a real connection by asking questions and understanding their goals, instead of talking about your company and your services. The goal is to create interest as a useful tool, someone who will want to continue the conversation, not as a car salesman ready to hit.
4) Improve your communication skills. Communication happens through conversation, but if you’re not prepared, most of your conversations will consist of small talk. While some of these are necessary to get the ball rolling, most of them won’t improve your relationship significantly. When you become friends with someone, you want to move to a more interesting level. Ask questions about what brings him to the meeting and what he is looking for. People love to talk about themselves and it’s hard for them to do so, so there won’t be much work for you but to listen. Then when it’s your turn, you can share your goals for what you hope to accomplish at the meeting. Maybe you’ll find something in common, ways you can help each other, or the ability to connect with other people in your network.
5) Get the right people to come to you. No matter how hard you work, you can’t reach every person you want to meet. You can make the most of your time, however, by attracting the right people to you. One way to do this is to ask a question in another part of the presentation. But don’t just ask a question. Use a five-minute introduction to get started.
A guy in one of my discussions tried this during the Q&A of a conference seminar. He raised his hand, stood up and said, “My name is Bob Smith and The Mergers & Acquisitions Company (note: the name and company have been changed). We help independent businesses find a way out, and my question is…” then he answered his own question. . He said after the meeting, five people approached him and he got business from three of them. Why? People knew what he did, his question was smart, and he sounded confident. He couldn’t find the right people alone in a room of 200 people, so he took steps to find him. They chose themselves, making his job easier.
You can do the same thing. All it takes is some pre-meeting prep work to choose a keynote or short piece that will appeal to your audience, develop your introduction with a question related to the topic, and practice speaking with ease and force. So stand back and see what happens.
6) Ask the organizers for help. Conference organizers want you to meet your goals so you can come back next year and hopefully bring your friends, so don’t be shy about asking for their help. It’s a simple two way process. First, you need to find one of them. One place to check is the registration desk, or, even better, if the conference is large enough, the Speakers’ Lounge, where speakers research and chat before and after their talks. You can also see them in the back of the seminar room and make sure everything is running smoothly. Usually, they have walkie talkies.
Second, you need to explain your request. If there is someone you want to meet, say, “I want to say hello to Mr. X, would you mind introducing me?” Or, if you’re looking for a certain type of person but don’t have a name, you can say, “I know there are other people from ABC Company, what’s the best way to find them?” or “I’m looking for someone in the PR field, is there anyone you can introduce me to?”
7) Exit the seminar room. As a conference speaker, I tend to encourage participants to stay in their seats during the most important time and breaks and to get as much information as possible. However, as a networker, I know that conversations over meals and in the barn can be very important in building relationships that will help your business.
Be sure to take advantage of any special online opportunities offered at the conference. More and more, organizers are trying to improve communication between participants through regular online events and other creative programs. A conference I attended a few years ago in Washington DC offered a round dinner where the participants split into small, pre-established groups (to separate people from similar industries and jobs) and set up dinner at local restaurants. I shared great wine and food with industry leaders who are still part of my network today.
Although Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is just showing up, effective communication at meetings, trade shows, and conferences requires a little effort. By simply showing up, you’ll still have a great time, find useful information, and meet great people, but a little foresight and advance planning can make your experience more tailored to your needs, and bring more value for your time and money.
© 2003-2007, Liz Lynch.
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