Part of me was excited to be here without "the usual suspects" (don't get me wrong, I love these people and they teach me so much by the examples of who they are a speakers and people, but this year it would be like being a "first timer" all over again). It is a fresh start to network and create contacts.
Yesterday I pretended to be shy while not engaged in conversations with others I had met in previous years. It was an interesting experiment, as I am always the person to approach the strangers in a crowd who seem lost or alone. I try (not always successful) to open a conversation cluster to strangers who are seeking to talk to new folks. This time I played the part of someone who was a bit hesitant. It was hard to not jump out and initiate connections... but WOW, it was a great lesson on how hard it can be for some to strike up conversations while at business events.
While NSA boasts about the open spirit of members toward those who are new comers, guests and others, not a single person came up to me on the breaks. Not one. I did not stand in the mix of the crowd, but not so far off that I would appear purposely disengaged. I even smiled and made eye contact. Some nodded or smiled back as they rushed by to the bathroom or other destination, but nobody approached me. Even in a room of extroverted speakers, people were seemingly drawn to their circles of old friends.
If it is this hard to have an initial conversation in a room of speakers, imagine the difficulties faced by the lawyers, accountants and IT professionals to whom I usually present. People come to industry events for the "networking opportunities", but find it hard to ever get started.
When you are at an event and you see someone standing alone.... be the person who walks up and says "hello". Simply asking them where they are from, what they most enjoy about being at the conference, or why they attended may be enough to launch a fascinating conversation that could lead to a wonderful long-term and mutually-beneficial relationships.
Below are some tips for the person who is standing alone to help them make connections at NSA or any Multi-day Conference:
1. Have a plan. Know in advance whom you want to meet (directly or the type of people), and which speakers you want to hear. Do not leave your schedule to chance or you may miss out on things that are your true priority.
2. Bring plenty of business cards. In today’s digital world some argue against the importance of business cards. But having a card is not for you, it is for the other person. Some people forget names quickly and asking for a card helps them recall you later. Telling someone “Google Me” is making them work to keep in touch. Additionally we don’t all use the same technologies, so using BUMP (or another digital tool) assumes we all adopt the same technologies. Not carrying business cards can be selfish, and selfish is so last year!
3. Focus on meeting the other attendees, not just the "Stars". While meeting the top speakers in the industry is cool, you are one of the many who may come up to them and shove a card in their hands. Instead, place your focus on meeting other people in attendance at the event. Find your peers and make them your "stars", as they are the ones you will grow up with in the business.
4. Talk to the people sitting next to you. This should go without saying in a room full of extrovert speakers, but very often people get side-tracked and do not make the effort. When you walk into a general session or break-out seminar, take the time before the presentation begins to say hello to the people seated around you. I call this the "power of hello". Once you have said something as simple as "hello", it will be easier to talk with them later in the conference when see them again.
5. Ask questions of people you meet. Never lead with your "elevator pitch". People are more interested in themselves than they are in you, so ask them questions to help them get to talking first. There is plenty of time to tell them about your business.
6. Put your technology away. Do not run to your iPhone,BlackBerry, or laptop at every break. When you are working on electronics you send the message that you are unapproachable because you are busy. Utilize the time on breaks to converse with others. Look around and smile rather than texting like crazy. The hallway conversations are legendary at NSA, do not miss out because you are tweeting!
7. Do not automatically send a LinkedIn or Facebookrequest. Too often people immediately send social networking link requests to people they just met. However, different people have different policies about whom they link with. If they believe in only connecting with those whom they have established relationships, you make it awkward if you send them a link too early (which they then ignore). Best is to ask people if they would welcome such a link at this time. Be respectful of the fact that they might use social networking differently than you do. Immediately following them on Twitter is okay, as Twitter does not require a mutual connection acceptance.
8. Read their stuff. Many speakers are active bloggers, tweeters, authors, etc... If people create the written word, seek out their work and read it. It is a great way to get to know people when you read their stuff. They will also be honored when you tell them that you read their blog or follow them on Twitter. The bookstore at the conference will have many books by your fellow speakers. Buy at least one book and then read it! (I plan to buy several).
9. Introduce others. When you meet cool people, be the conduit that connects them with others who might be beneficial to them. This includes others at the conference, as well as people you might know back home. If you ask the right types of questions, you will easily spot connections that can help others. Don't ever worry about "what's in it for me", but instead just be the person who helps others at every turn. You will, over time, develop the reputation as one who assists others .... and then you will find more people will help you, too.
10. Follow up. If you meet interesting people and you never follow up, it makes no difference. Own the follow-up after you meet people and send them an email (or better yet, a handwritten note) telling them how much you enjoyed talking with them, and plan for future discussions. Creating ongoing and meaningful connections with others in the industry will bring you more success.
11. Do more than others expect from you. Bring more to a new relationship than the other person expects and they will always remember you as someone who is a giver. Speakers can always help each other with key introductions, bureau introductions, and other shared connections. Those who give always get more down the line.
Have A Great Day
Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections. http://www.conferencecatalyst.com