Also published in the Boston Business Journal here.
Making connections at conferences, trade shows and meetings is one of the key reasons to attend. Yes, you hope to hear a good speaker here and there or learn about a new product or service. But it's the other people that often make or break the experience. Here are some tips to make it worthwhile:
1. First impression A person makes up his/her mind whether to stop at your booth in about four seconds. It is always crucial to make a strong first impression, and the stakes are higher at large events such as conferences and trade shows. Everyone on the team must reflect the image and style of the company at all times and in all places. That includes elevators, restaurants, planes, shuttle buses, and hotel lobbies just to name a few
2. Book appointments ahead In many cases you are attending because there is someone specific with whom you want to meet. Make the connection a week or so in advance. Explain why you'd like time together. Be sure to state what problem you solve. Don't overcommit yourself. You can quickly run out of time, and canceling appointments at shows is not professional.
3. Working the booth Make a point of catching someone's eye when he or she approaches. Smile and say hello. If the person is also an exhibitor, ask a question such as, "How many shows do you typically attend in a year?" "What in particular do you like about this one?"
If it's an attendee, ask questions about him or her before you do too much talking. Then you will be able to tailor your comments to theirs.
4. So many booths, so little time A show or conference can become overwhelming fast. The challenge is to identify in advance who you want to see and why. Walk with someone else in the industry who is well known and respected. Be sure you are not stalking him.
Conferences can also quickly become exhausting. While it's great to be away from the office, rarely does the mind truly shut down. Find a quiet place somewhere - in the convention hall, back at your room, in a restaurant - for you to gather your thoughts and be alone.
Remember - it's quality contacts you are after. The number of business cards you get is not an indicator of future business. It's the quality of your interaction with the person who gave you the card.
Get off the show floor. A lot of bonding happens off-site. If you are invited to sponsored parties, be sure to attend, say hello to the person who invited you and thank him or her as you leave.
5. Table for 20 When you attend a conference or trade show, ask the concierge to book a dinner reservation for 20 at a nearby restaurant for the second evening of the conference. While you are meeting people at the conference, invite them to dinner. It's a great way to introduce people to each other and you will be the one who made it happen.
Before your boss hyperventilates at the idea of signing off on that expense account, this doesn't mean you need to pick up the tab. You can organize something without paying for it. In fact, mention the name of the restaurant when you invite people and mention the price of a typical entrée. This signals that they are invited to attend and expected to pay their fair share.
You will be remembered for helping everyone avoid the dread of figuring out what to do for dinner in a strange town; you (and your company) will gain visibility; and you connect strangers to each other who are at the same conference for similar purposes.
6. Managing business cards We often end up with so many cards we have no idea with whom we spoke during the event. The best way to manage your cards is to start from the very moment you receive one.
Take a second to make conversation about something such as their office location. Next, note any promised follow-up you've made to that person on the back of the card.
The data should always then be added into a database. The cards should then be sorted by priority - who needs immediate follow-up or who has a less sensitive time requirement.
7. Managing shyness Too often, shyness is misinterpreted as aloofness or even arrogance. If shyness is a challenge for you or someone on your team, spend some time thinking of conversation starters. Here's a tip - begin any sentence with "tell me about," and you have started a conversation.
I was surprised to learn in my research on shyness that for most people it is a learned trait. We may be born with a more reserved or cautious nature, but as we grow older and experience rejection, we actually learn to be shy.
Being friendly doesn't mean you need to be the life of the party and have to give up your normal, low-key style. If you're ever feeling nervous it may be that you are thinking too much about yourself. Instead - ask yourself, what can I do to help someone today? By focusing on the other person, it can calm nerves and make you come across as more professional.