“I Need Your Help!”

“I need your help.”  That was the message that my friend sent to me.  She is attending a conference at the end of the month that has potential to be extremely beneficial for her company in the form of potential partners, investors and clients.  That said, she is more of an introvert than extrovert, really (I mean really, really) dislikes large networking events and wants to make the most of her time at the event, but knows going in that there will be more than 500 people at the event!  Whoa!  Scary.

It stands to reason that the help she was seeking from me was to help her prepare to make her 24 hours at the conference as productive as possible.  Frankly, when she first requested help, I wasn’t sure where to begin, but as I started thinking through what I personally would need going in to a conference like the one she is attending, I came up with this list of 10 tips… see what you think:

  1. Introverts vs. Extroverts.  Many people I talk with chalk up their networking success to whether they deem themselves extroverts or introverts.  Extroverts often take their energy from large groups of people – they thrive in large networking settings.  Introverts, on the other hand, derive their energy from robust one-on-one, more intimate conversations.  Whichever end of the spectrum you are on, remember that it is critical to connect with others through meaningful dialogue that leaves both/all parties wanting to build the relationship.
  2. Prepare.  Prior to the event/conference, identify the speakers and participants that you must meet – pursue them relentlessly knowing that not meeting them will represent a failure of the event for you.  Pursue them, but don’t stalk or chase them… there are always others!
  3. Pre-conference outreach.  If you have an idea of who will be at the event, why not bridge the divide by reaching out in advance?  By connecting with someone prior to the meeting, you might be able to make more efficient use of your time at the event itself so that you are not searching for the person for that initial introduction.  Instead of sheepishly walking around looking at name tags, you can pick a pre-determined spot or meal at which to meet and talk with your new (or previously established) contact.
  4. Force yourself to engage.  It WILL NOT BE EASY and it will not get less awkward… sorry!  BUT, if you are prepared, you will forget your unease and focus on getting the results you seek.
  5. Be present.  Attend every meeting, every meal, every plenary.  It will be easy to take the Chicken Exit.  Don’t.  As an event planner myself, it is a point of pride to attract great speakers to a conference… HOWEVER, as a participant, remember that you are not (necessarily) there to hear the speakers (as great as they may be) – rather, you are there to connect with others.  Make the connections your priority – not the presentations.
  6. Dine with new contacts at every meal.  Never sit at the same table more than once.  Once you pick a seat, go around the table and shake every person’s hand, say hello, introduce yourself.  Breaking bread with others is one of the fastest ways to break the ice.
  7. Set a goal.  Establish a reasonable number of people that you want meet/connect with at the event – remember it’s quality, not quantity, that counts.
  8. Be prepared with questions. Questions, especially of the open-ended variety, are your secret weapon when it comes to starting conversations:  What brought you here?  Where are you based?  Who do you serve?  Tell me more about your company.  How did you get into the business?  How did you learn about this event?  Have you attended this event in the past?  What did/do you find most useful about this event?  What do you hope to get out of this event?  How can I help?
  9. Be prepared to introduce yourself.  You should have brief (but not aloof) answers to questions like the ones that follow… know your talking points.  If you are unable to recite clear, articulate answers the follow questions, write them down and rehearse until you are comfortable and it sounds unscripted:  What do you do?  What does your company do?  What brought you here?  What do you need?  With whom do you want to connect?
  10. Follow up.  Take note of the meaningful conversations in which you engage, follow up with them after the event.  Remember, you are attending the event to set the stage, NOT to transact business.  The transactions will come later; use this time to plant seeds.

I’ve already shared these points with my friend and we agreed that she is going to prepare and practice so that her interactions are more natural and effective when she shows up at the conference.  She doesn’t leave for a few weeks… I (and she) would be grateful for any additional tips that you have for maximizing the value of her time at the event.

4 thoughts on ““I Need Your Help!”

  1. Alana,
    Your post is very timely. I’m currently part of a group of fraternity brothers (alums) who are planning for a big 100th anniversary event for our chapter at Iowa State in September.

    Of course, I want to be well prepared to make the most of the event personally, but as a planner and leader of the event, I’ve decided to also try and help all the attendees to prepare in ways that will help them have a great time. So in many ways, I’m facing what your friend is facing.

    One step I took just yesterday was to return to a classic article that I encountered in Fast Company magazine back in December, 1998. It’s titled, The Conference-Commando Field Manual, and it’s chock full of great ideas for making the most of a conference. I’ve returned to it via Google many times over the years.

    Your list of ideas is outstanding, so thank you for helping me too. One more I would add is for your friend to be ready to take lots of notes in real time, all day long.

    Personally, I like to use Moleskine pocket books to capture my thoughts, ideas and info in analog fashion while I’m in sessions, or right after I talk with someone I just met. I believe another important step is to reflect on the day and take some notes each evening.

    Like you, Alana, I’m a huge believer in writing handwritten notes, so I always pack note cards and stamps with me when I attend a conference or similar event. That way I can write and mail my notes at the end of each day. Why leave that task until you get home? The recipients of her notes will be blown away when they receive a hand-written note so quickly.

    Finally, your friend will definitely want to go to her bookshelf, pull out your book, Coffee Lunch Coffee, and reread it. That alone will give her lots of great ideas.

    Cheers, Don

  2. Brilliant. Succinct. Practical. I worked with some of these ideas with a client recently. She is responsible for sales and was getting ready for her first conference with her new company in a new (to her) industry.

    Part of her job is cold-calling, so we set up one experiment in which her cold calls prior to the conference were solely focused on inviting conference attendees to rendezvous for coffee during the course of the conference. She got incredible response, especially compared to standard cold calls of trying to set up sales conversations.Turns out MANY people are uncomfortable at conferences and networking events and are delighted to have structured appointments set up in advance.

    Second experiment that worked was having the laptop sales presentation on standby during the meetings. The idea was this: have a purposeful conversation whose main aim is to see if there is a mutual basis for moving forward. Be OK if the answer is “no” or “not now.” But let’s not subject these prospects to “death by powerpoint” in the first meeting.

    Result: 15 appointments set up in advance. Most ran long because the conversations were authentic and pressure-free. At least half of these led to follow-up meetings, and in two cases, requests for proposals.

    Mike

  3. Alana, very helpful post! As you point out, and as as Mike Grogran reinforces in his comment, many people are nervous at big conferences. It’s completely within the realm of normal reactions.

    Your list is so thorough, I only have one thing to add to all the other great tips:

    Introductions and matchmaking for others.

    While this is not your primary responsibility, this is something that is relatively low effort, high reward.

    Before, during, or after the conference, make the point to introduce other people whom you think might have a common professional interests.

    Not only do they have the potential to develop positive relationships, but they’ll remember you as the person who helped initiate the connection.

  4. Alana, you were right on the money with your suggestions.

    I’ve found that most introverts aren’t necessarily shy; they just don’t like to spend “unproductive time.” So your ideas about doing spade work ahead of the conference, and Mike’s suggestions about coffee instead of a sales meeting, are helpful.

    Another idea is to attend SIG (special interest group) meetings held at conferences by many industry groups, and especially trade or membership associations. Those are a terrific way of ratcheting down the sense of being “overwhelmed,” and are still intimate enough for introverts to engage and feel their time is well spent. It’s also “pre-focused” according to SIG member need, so introverted sales people have already have a high-level screen in place.

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