The First Three Minutes

I know a lot of you have been exhibiting at trade shows for five or 10 or 20 years.

My experience over the past 22 years training people on how to improve their communication shills, especially in public situations like trade shows and conferences, has proven to me that no matter how long you’ve been in these environments, very few of you consistently perform at a high level. I think there are a couple of reasons for this: that this is little preparation or thought given to the unique skills needed and there is no compelling reason for most people to try to improve their skills.

My point here is, if you’re going to take the time and make the effort to go an expensive trade show, in other words – any trade show – you should review and practice a few things that will make the most of your time. Even professional athletes and performers warm-up and rehearse before every game or performance respectively. But most people I know who are going to work in an exhibit  booth or hall or host a reception or party just show up without any preparation, figuring there are at their peak readiness right from the start.

I encourage you to make the most of time at your next trade show by realizing that your face-to-interactions with the other attendees will have more influential and impact on your business than anything else. I don’t care if you provide the best food, drink or have the nicest exhibit booth. These all pale in comparison to how you interact with the other attendees.

In this article, I want to focus on one element of preparing for a trade show: Making the most of your conversations. Productive conversations can happen in your exhibit booth, another exhibit booth, receptions, restaurants, hallways, and anywhere else you might have a conversation.

So here are a few tips to have more productive conversations. First, believe it or not, there is a fair amount of research on the structure of conversations. I’ve condensed a bunch of it below:

  1. Recognize the importance of the first three minutes.
  2. Be aware of how you interact now. Do you use the same pattern of conversation?
  3. Are you aware of how you sound and what you say?
  4. Be genuinely interested in meeting people and learning from people.

If you, like I have, take an honest assessment of yourself relative to those four items above, you’ll probably realize that you don’t think about them much, don’t analyze them and maybe didn’t even realize if you are a little weak in a couple of areas. Let the research continue:

The basic structure of any conversation looks like this:

  1. Introductions
    1. Uncovering identification and demographic information.
    2. Finding out about each other’s jobs and responsibilities.
  2. Informational questioning
    1. Taking about what’s going on real-time, right now.
    2. Discovering mutual interests and people you both know.
  3. Active listening
    1. Offering feedback and questions to what the other person said.
    2. Building on their subject of interest by offering your opinion, insight or related story.
  4. Rapport building
    1. You’re enjoying the conversation.
    2. There is give-and-take, the conversation is not completely one-sided.
    3. You two actually care about what the other on is saying.
    4. You share some mutual interests, attitudes or you’re both open enough to enjoy contrary opinions.
  5. Agree to continue or not
    1. After three minutes it is perfectly acceptable to continue or to move on and leave the conversation. Just be polite and excuse yourself.

For a trade show, or any other crowded, non-one-on-one setting, the time frames are shortened to get through these five items.

And, if you get stuck in the middle of the first three minutes of a conversation, here are some things to do that will unstuck conversations:

  1. Change the subject.
  2. Ask real-time questions.
  3. Ask them what they want to discuss.

So far, I’ve given you some things to do. Now here are some things not to do. Try to avoid doing the following within the first three minutes:

  1. Giving advice. Unsolicited advice is rarely appreciated. Even if asked for advice, give it sparingly. Most advice is criticism and even from a good friend, is hard to take. Criticism from a stranger is rarely appreciated, rarely followed, and rarely stimulates good feelings.
  2. Asking too many questions. It’s not an interrogation. Asking open-ended questions to get basic information is fine, but asking question after question is not. Avoid personal questions early on in the conversation. But you can ask a nosy question in a lighthearted way and probably receive a lighthearted answer. Sometimes questions are used to uncover the other person’s feelings before you have to reveal yours. This is not always fair. Playback the questions you usually ask in your head and maybe add an assertion that communicates how you feel about the issue.
  3. Don’t be silent except when listening. And don’t do all of the listening. It shouldn’t be a one-way street.
  4. Fact flinging. Or the other extreme: not joining in because you think your opinion isn’t strong enough by itself. Shared personal experiences and feelings are what make relationships, not facts.
  5. Self-focus. Thinking that a monologue about you is interesting to anyone else. Or a monologue about a subject that you alone know about. Pretending to be an expert is a technique that many people use.

If you read this whole article and really made an honest assessment of how you currently conduct your conversations versus what some of the research says, try to improve your conversational skills at your next trade show and I’ll bet you’ll meet more people, establish more relationships and have more fun.



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Location, location, location?

It’s true in real estate. Is it true for your exhibit booth? Yes it is and no, probably not, depending upon the size of the show.

One strategy is to be inside the triangle. If you look at a map of the exhibit hall and draw a triangle with the point down at the main entrance to the hall, you want your booth to be inside the triangle. Another strategy is to have a booth near food or even the restrooms. The reality is, if you’re not one of the first 20 or 50 exhibitors to pick a location, you are probably going to have to do some extra things to attract visitors to your booth.

For a large show with 500+ exhibitors location is important, especially if you have a small booth. And at these large shows, a small booth might be a 20×20 or smaller. A 10×10 or 10×20 booth can really be missed. These companies must make an extra effort to get noticed. They need to make sure there is some traffic to their booth. Some of the things they can do is some pre-show promotion, maybe an in-booth contest, raffle off a Ferrari, get Brad Pitt to sign autographs in the booth, etc.

For smaller trade shows where there are only 150 exhibit booths and sometimes show rules dictate that none of them can be any bigger than a 10×20, location is not all that important. I walked up and down every aisle at a show like this a month ago and read the signs in every booth and it still only took me 30 or 45 minutes. I think that means that your average visitor to the exhibit hall will walk up and down every aisle too. And they’ll take their time. Walking the exhibit floor is fun for them and they want to visit with old friends and learn about new products and services. And they especially like it when the exhibitors jump out into the aisle and obstruct them physically – especially if the visitor is from a really big company.

It is tough to be missed at a small show. This is not to say that the booths in the front and center of the hall won’t be busier; they will be. But, if you do the right things before and during the show, you’ll maximize your investment. Before the show, do some pre-show promotion. The most effective thing to do is to extend personal invitations to the people you really want to see. Make phone calls to them, send them formal invitations.

During the show, your staff can be proactive about greeting visitors as they walk by. And at a few shows I work, which is not the case at most shows, exhibitors are encouraged to work the hall outside their own booth. So do that, have your people walk the aisles and greet visitors. And, if there are other exhibitors that have services that are complimentary to yours, offer to take your visitors over to them when you’re finished with them if they return the favor. Escorting visitors to other booths really does work. You’re handing off an already qualified visitor.


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