In the overpopulated digital space, conferences are proving to be the place for real and lasting business connections.
We are wired to be a part of a tribe. Facebook and social media are movie screen substitutes for connections, but nothing can replace looking someone in the eye, shaking their hand, and breathing the same air.
And since we spend the majority of our time commanding screens, the skill of commanding a room is slowly slipping away.
Which means, the value of people who can successfully network has increased exponentially.
Attending conferences and networking in a room full of strangers can be stressful, even daunting. Flashbacks to the school lunchroom haunt us – “Which table are the cool kids sitting at? …Am I a cool kid?”
I’ve been attending large conferences since I was 7 years old. My father established the first personal computer user group conventions in Oklahoma. He landed major sponsors like Microsoft and thousands of people attended them. I’ve been attending one conference after another ever since. Conferences and conventions are like a second home to me. I’ve easily earned my 10,000 expert-earning hours for event networking.
In that time, I’ve noticed a pattern in how some people conquer conferences and why others walk away empty-handed and exhausted.
So, I’ve decided to combine those lessons with my the spy-like observational and influential techniques you’ve come to expect from me to help you have a confident and compelling James Bond-esque aura at every event you attend.
Networking at Events: Understand the Field
Grade school and conferences are very similar. The cool kids sit in the back while the nerds sit up front. After attending hundreds of conferences, I can say that not much has changed. Instead of labeling the groups as nerds and cool kids, conferences are more accurately split between the learners and the networkers.
The people who sit up front have come to the conference to soak up every bit of information from the speakers on stage.
The people who sit in the back are there to network and mingle.
They have side conversations during the presentations. They are popping in and out of the meeting to chat in the halls, while the learners only get out of their seats for bio breaks.
Choose Your Vantage Point
Just like any choice, there is a pro and con to your seating decision.
A learner’s profile at an event is someone who follows the rules, likes processes, and is expecting to learn something new and helpful. Even if they are well-versed in the subject, they still have a level of humility to admit that there is more they can learn.
A networker’s profile is someone who doesn’t expect to learn much because they’ve “been in the game” for long enough, have a high status, and/or are there for the primary reason to rub elbows, not take notes.
Does this mean that you should sit in the front or the back?
It’s up to you. What is your primary intention for attending? Are you there to learn or are you there to network? I have sat at the front as a learner and I’ve sat at the back as a networker depending on what I’m wanting to get from the event.
Your seating shapes your experience.
Don’t mismatch. If you are in learner mode, don’t sit in the back. You’ll be agitated by the chatting and constant comings and goings by the networkers. If you’re in network mode, please don’t sit in the front. The learners will hate you and so will the speakers. Plus, you won’t be able to get up and leaving regularly for hallway chats without disrupting the entire room. You’ll have to find your moments only in between speakers. So, you won’t get the experience you want.
No matter where you sit, you still can make note of who you want to connect with (your mark), where they are seated, and figure out a way to connect during the breaks. If you have a mark already chosen, try to find a seat where your mark is in view. Don’t sit next to them…yet. Just position yourself to keep an eye on them and take note of if/when they leave and other things that we’ll talk about in a little bit.
Recon in the Hallways
Learning happens in the conference room; business is done in the hallways. It may seem odd to spend hundreds to thousands of dollars to attend an event and then not – well, attend the event. But, real conversations and connections happen in the hallways.
By day two of the event, the networkers sitting in the back are now mysteriously missing. But listen closely, and you can hear the murmur of their conversation happening right outside the conference room doors. And that’s probably where you need to be.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should set up camp in the hallway and never go to the actual conference. But it does mean that you should pay attention to the movement of your marks whenever you can.
- Who do they talk to?
- Can you get an “in” by connecting first with one of your mark’s conference pals?
- What do they talk about? Eavesdropping could help you figure out how to approach your mark later.
- Are they mingling often? Checking their phone regularly? Or prefer to be alone for a bit?
- When people approach your mark, when does your mark respond well and when do they cringe?
See if you can strategically plan your next coffee refill in the hallway and find your “in” with your mark.
When and how you approach your mark is the critical first step to making contact. CIA agents work with their handlers for days to figure out the best, well-planned approach for potential assets. You won’t have that kind of time or intel, but you still can be very smooth with your approach.
Identifying the perfect moment to approach will make your networking effortless – like James Bond, baby.
The approach boils down to 3 steps – Look, Listen, Leverage
It all starts with body language
Here’s an awkward moment that you can easily avoid…
I was at an event in Los Angeles and, because I knew the event producer, I was able to invite a few friends and colleagues to attend for free. Some friends couldn’t make it and sent their business partners to attend in their stead. At the event, I made the rounds and welcomed each guest.
On the second day, I had only one guest left to welcome. I spotted him during a coffee break. He was speaking to another attendee. And even though I knew the body language networking tip, I ignored my better judgment and approached anyway.
The consequences? I found myself stuck on the outskirts of the conversation for a horrendously awkward period of time. Ugh!
I politely waited and waited. …. and waited.
Surely they would take notice and politely have a break in the conversation and acknowledge my existence, right? … Nope!
Finally, as the countdown for the coffee break dwindled, I had to (almost rudely) step in, introduce myself, welcome him, and then leave while my ego curled up in the corner of my soul.
So, what signals did I ignore that lead me to manifest my own embarrassment?
It all boils down to open and closed body language.
This was how the two from my embarrassing episode was positioned at the event.
And even though I knew the “open” signal and didn’t see it, I approached anyway and suffered the consequences. You should only approach people who are demonstrating an openness for new people to enter the group.
What does that look like?
Well, two people can be in rapport and give off similar signals of being a “closed” group, but one simple deviation is your indicator that you can approach without any awkwardness.
Look at their feet.
The group is open for another person to be added when the feet tell you so.
Their torsos still might be mirroring one another, but one person’s foot will be placed at an angle, pointing away from the center of the group. That foot is like an open door for you to walk through.
So, before approaching people having a conversation, look at the feet to find your opportune time.
Once you have identified your mark and have found an opportunity to approach them, the next challenge is deciding what to say. You want to find that perfect cool-zone – be engaging without having an air of desperation.
This next tip is very important. I can’t stress it enough. This technique has helped me meet and befriend executives for Kodak, Marvel Studios, the NBA, the NFL, the Grand Prix, and New York Times Best Selling authors. It works.
So, what is this wonderful technique?
Okay, so when you approach someone who is already talking to somebody else, you walk up (because you’ve seen the open signal) and …. Don’t. Say. Anything.
Pretty counterintuitive, huh?
Typically, people waste energy worrying about what to say – conjuring and editing a perfect opening line. Look, you’re not trying to pick up a chick at the bar. You’re making a business connection. So, listen for your opening to comment.
As the group talks, you are not waiting nervously on standby. Not at all.
While they talk, you are gathering influential intelligence. The more they talk, the more you learn. You are in a position of power.
Networking tip: let others talk so you can gather influential intelligence.
So, while you’re standing with the group listening for your opening, your body language is important. Stand tall and confident. Keep your torso and feet pointed to the center of the group. Don’t angle your body to your mark. If you do, they’ll get a whiff of your intention and it might reek of desperation. You’ll likely be holding something, a coffee cup or notebook. That’s ok. In fact, it’s great, because that object will give your hands something to do and it will feel like a nice buffer between you and them, so you don’t feel too exposed.
Keep your body language still and engaged. Actively listen. Relax and breathe.
You’re opening will reveal itself and when it does you…
Leveraging means taking something that was said and using it to your benefit. In this scenario, you are leveraging a comment to be your opening remarks.
At some point, someone will say something that you feel comfortable commenting on. You can agree with someone’s perspective and add to it. And what do you know?! You’re in!
Now, finding something to agree with is what people typically do. But, influencers aren’t typical communicators. *wink*
Instead, it is more effective to politely and non-threateningly disagree (more specifically to use feigned disbelief) or ask for clarification (use naiveté).
These two techniques spark further conversation, aka intelligence gathering. Your main objective is to engage your mark in a conversation so that it opens the door for you to build rapport. And before you know it, you have a new, valuable contact.
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