How to connect at a networking event

When you walk into a networking reception, what’s the first thing you do?

Find the bar of course! And if you want to find the least crowded bar, look for the ones in the back. They’re almost always less crowded. Now that you have a drink, what’s next? Getting some food of course. So you go for the least crowded food station.

If this is your preferred way to work a networking reception then your goal seems to be to drink and eat by yourself while you hang around and wait for someone you know to spot you and come over to say “hello.” That’s not playing the networking game, that’s playing solitaire.

Waiting for someone to interact with you might work if you’re handing out free tickets to a Katy Perry – Russell Brand cage match, but it is not a great way to meet new people. And the real value of a networking event is to make new friends, catch up with old friends, and see if you can work an invitation from one of the sponsors who’s hosting an after-party in their seven-room suite.

Personally, I have no problem walking into a networking event where I don’t know anyone. In fact, I think it’s fun. Here are some tips to help you be a proactive networker at your next reception.

Realize that everyone wants to talk to someone. However, most people just don’t feel comfortable walking up to people they don’t know and starting a conversation. But aren’t you relieved and pleased when you’re alone and someone you don’t know starts a conversation with you?

So how about a different opening gambit; don’t head right for the bar. Walk up to someone you don’t know, who doesn’t have a drink, and say – pay close attention here, this is tricky – “Hi, I’m Matt Hill” (Using my name, of course, will usually cause them to turn and run, use your own name).

What will happen is, they will tell you their name and that’s how a conversation starts. And sometimes there’s even an ice-breaking networking game in place so you can move to that next. After that, ask them, “Want to go over to the bar and get a drink?” or “Want to go over a get a bite to eat?”

If you do find yourself in line for a drink or in line for an organic herb-encrusted farm-raised tuna roll, then you can ask a different ice-breaking question like, “Are you as excited as I am to taste the tuna?” Okay, maybe not. How about: “So how long have you been coming to this conference?” or “What did you think of the morning speaker and their Top 10 Strategies for Embezzling Your Budget?” My point is, most people are a little shy about starting a conversation because they haven’t prepared any ice-breaking questions. But once a conversation gets going most people are usually fine.

I also like to be a Connector. As a Connector, once I get a conversation going I ask them if they’d like to meet some other attendees that I know. They always say “yes.” So I escort them over and introduce them. At my last networking event, I connected a lot of people by doing a lot of escorting. My escort service has really caught the attention of the Conference Board.

To summarize:

  1. A good networker also commits to walking up to at least three people they don’t know and introducing themselves.
  2. A good networker asks questions. Prepare for your next networking event by having some ice-breaking questions ready. Start with introducing yourself. Then go for the networking game. Then ask a questions about them: How long they’ve been a attending, what they do, where they’re from, how they’re enjoying the conference so far, etc.
  3. A good networker is genuinely interested in meeting new people, finding out about them, asking follow-up questions, finding areas of mutual interest, and knows they can learn something from everyone.
  4. A good networker doesn’t talk about business until the other person brings it up. Don’t look at networking events as a perfect, captive sales opportunity. Business will come up naturally. Let it happen that way.
  5. A good networker continues to connect and network throughout the entire conference, not just at the formal events.
  6. A good networker will look for opportunities to help other attendees in any way they can: offering to introduce them to other attendees and to any leadership people you know, offering to share a cab or car back to the airport, and offering to introduce them to another attendee who might be able to help them. Take the high road, it’s always the right road.


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Dealing With a Reluctant Exhibit Staff

Things have changed a bit since the economic downturn. It used to be that most exhibit staffers had to be dragged kicking and screaming to work at a trade show. But lately, complaining about this is not a good career move and to cut expenses, companies often try to draw staff from the area around the trade show venue and they really have no choice but to work.

But any staff with an attitude problem will adversely affect your trade show’s success. But have no fear, the following solicited advice might be worth trying (but remember, turning attitudes around usually doesn’t happen overnight, it’s  a process that over time will yield positive results):

  1. The staff might like working the shows more if they had more of role in the planning and operation of the exhibit. Wait, whom am I kidding? No really. Start the email updates early about the wonderful spot on show floor that you have, an expected attendance increase, Minneapolis in the middle of March – you know, all the good stuff.
  2. Remind the staff in the on results from last year’s show; orders, sales, lead generation, meetings, PR, etc. If they know they have a hand in starting or furthering a sale, they’ll take some satisfaction in their effort for this year.
  3. Work them in half-day shifts if possible. I know it’s twice the expenses but if you can it makes a difference. And give them more breaks from booth duty than expected if they are working all day.
  4. Give them more responsibility. Put them in charge of a section in the booth, or a product area or display, or to be your traffic flow consultant.
  5. When it slows down, have them do some competitive information gathering or ask them to walk the show and report back on the busiest booth or the most attractive booth. And ask them why they think this.
  6. Give the staff goals to meet; qualified leads, number of key customer conversations and not enraging more than four or five visitors per day, etc.
  7. Manage their expectations of what the results of their efforts could be. Trade shows are sales and marketing events. Quick sales from trade shows do happen if the timing is just right but most results from trade shows happen over the next few months. Set your exhibit staff’s expectation for this trade show ROI timeframe.
  8. Trade shows are about working with people. This can be fun, especially if your staff learns how to work effectively with their booth visitors. If their conversations spin out of control, if they’re not able to get to their agenda, or if they can’t remove themselves from unproductive conversations, your staff will not be having fun.

There is no escaping the hard, grueling working at a trade show. Any attempt to gloss over this reality will sap your credibility. An honest assessment of what your exhibit staff can expect will enable you to move them past the not-so-fun aspects of the trade show to the parts of working the show can be fun:

I think the following strategies will help your staff have some fun working in your exhibit booth:

  1. Don’t have them take the show too seriously. Yes, it’s serious money and time to put on an event like a trade show. But a trade show is about people and face-to-face interaction. A friendly, not frantic, attitude from your staff will put your visitors more at ease and make them more receptive to your messages, products and services. It can actually be fun for your staff to meet a lot of people from all parts of your industry and hear them get interested, and maybe even excited, about your company. When you introduce this concept, tell a few stories about how this happened to you or how it happened at the last show.
  2. Divert their attention. Instead of reinforcing the negatives of a multi-day trade show, (sore feet, dry throats and hangovers) focus them on setting and meeting individual and team goals. If the staff owns the results of the show, this will promote camaraderie and take their attention and focus away from those negatives. They’ll have more fun when they feel successful and when they feel like they’re making a difference. Give frequent and specific recognition.
  3. Balance their day. Team function like eating together and attending meetings are fine, but give your exhibit staff down time to re-generate and regain their energy. Even during the show, when it slows down, send them off on a quick break. Make recommendations so their break is rejuvenating; a brisk walk, sitting down with a cool drink, getting somewhere less noisy (outside or amongst the conference meeting rooms).

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