Conferences are good for mainly one thing.
No, it’s not the coffee and cookies at breaks. It’s not even pricey business enlightenment. They provide a forum to meet the kind of like-minded people who can help you fulfill your mission and goals. Before deciding to attend a conference, I sometimes informally go so far as using a simple return-on-investment-type thought process. Is the likely return I’ll get from the relationships I establish and build equal to or greater than the price of the conference and the time I spend there? If so, I attend. If not, I don’t. It’s that simple. That may seem like an awfully pragmatic view of conferences, but it works.
These executives are far from alone in holding such attitudes—stems from an all-too-common misperception that conferences are places to find insight. Wrong. Real, actionable insight mostly comes from experience, books, and other people. Roundtable discussions and keynote speeches can be fun, even inspirational, but rarely is there the time to impart true knowledge.
But there may be no better place to extend your professional network and, on occasion, get deals done. Let me give you an example based on sales. In the old model of selling, 80 percent of a salesperson’s time went into setting up meetings, giving a presentation, and trying to close a deal. The other 20 percent was spent developing a relationship with the customer. Today, we focus mostly on relationship selling. Smart salespeople—in fact, smart employees and business owners of all stripes—spend 80 percent of their time building strong relationships with the people they do business with. The slickest PowerPoint presentation can’t compete with the development of real affection and trust in capturing the hearts and minds of other people.
Don’t think of your next conference as a business-related retreat. Think of it as a well-coordinated campaign to further your mission. Here are the rules I follow at each and every event I attend:
Help the Organizer (Better Yet, Be the Organizer) Conferences are logistical nightmares. There are a thousand different things that go into pulling off a successful business gathering. The mess that can ensue is an opportunity for you to come in and help out—and become an insider in the process. Once you’re on the inside, you can find out who will be attending and what the hot events will be. And you’ll find yourself at all those unlisted dinners and cocktail parties that are thrown for the conference poobahs.
The key is to work hard to make the conference a success.
Listen. Better Yet, Speak
Are you someone who thinks becoming a speaker is a big deal? That’s true for a lot of people. I’m here to tell you it’s not as tough as you might think, but it is also perhaps more important than you can imagine Nothing frightens the daylights out of some people like the thought of spending fifteen minutes talking about what they do in front of an audience, even if the audience is made up of generally receptive folks (like family and friends!).
Calm yourself. First, you should know that giving speeches is one of the easiest and most effective ways to get yourself, your business, and your ideas seen, heard of, and remembered, and you don’t need to be Tony Robbins to find yourself a forum of people willing to hear you out. How many people find themselves in front of an audience on any given day? The numbers are shocking. There are thousands of forums and events going on—for every imaginable reason—each and every day. All these forums need a warm body to say something the slightest bit inspiring or insightful to their guests. Most speakers, unfortunately, deliver neither.
The American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) says the meetings industry is a nearly $83 billion market, with over $56 billion being spent annually on conventions and seminars alone. That ranks conferences—get this!—as the twenty-third-largest contributor to the Gross National Product. The point here is that the opportunity to speak exists everywhere, paid or unpaid. It’s fun, it can be profitable, and there’s no better way to get yourself known—and get to know others—at an event. Study after study shows that the more speeches one gives, the higher one’s income bracket tends to be.
How do you become a speaker at a conference? First, you need something to say: You need content (which I’ll discuss in another chapter). You need to develop a spiel about the niche you occupy. In fact, you can develop a number of different spiels, catering to a number of different audiences (again, I’ll get to that later).
What if you are at a conference and you’re not a speaker? There are other places to distinguish yourself. Remember, you’re not there just to learn new things from other people—you’re there to meet others and have others meet and remember you. When sessions open up for questions, try and be among the first people to put your hand in the air. A really well-formed and insightful question is a mini-opportunity to get seen by the entire audience. Be sure to introduce yourself, tell people what company you work for, what you do, and then ask a question that leaves the audience buzzing. Ideally, the question should be related to your expertise so you have something to say when someone comes up and says, “That was an interesting question.”
Guerrilla Warfare: Organize a Conference Within a Conference True commandos aren’t restricted by the agenda that they receive at registration. Who says you can’t arrange your own dinner while at the conference, or put together an informal discussion on a particular topic that matters to you?
Often, creating your own forum is the best way to assure that people you’re looking to meet will be in the same place at the same time. Ideally, you’d like to invite a stable of speakers to your dinner, which will provide a star-studded draw to your little event. Remember, even an unknown becomes a mini-star after their talk at an event.
Draft Off a Big Kahuna
If you get to know the most popular man or woman at the conference—the one who knows everyone—you’ll be able to hang with them as they circle through the most important people at the conference.
Be an Information Hub
Once you’ve created an opportunity to meet new people, establish yourself as an “information hub”—a key role of any good networker. How? Go beyond just memorizing the conference’s brochure. Identify information the people around you would like to know, and come prepared.
Master the Deep Bump
The bump is the main weapon in your conference commando arsenal. Reduced to its essence, it is the two minutes you’re given with someone you’re “bumping into” whom you are looking to meet. Your goal should be to leave the encounter with an invitation to reconnect at a later time. The bump, like other practices, is nuanced. The perfect bump is one that feels both fast and meaningful at the same time. I call this ideal a “deep bump.” Deep bumps are an effort to quickly make contact, establish enough of a connection to secure the next meeting, and move on.
You’ve just paid a boatload of money to be at this conference (unless you’re a speaker, when it’s usually free!), and you want to meet as many people as you can in the time that you have. You’re not looking to make a best friend. You are looking, however, to make enough of a connection to secure a follow-up. Creating a connection between any two people necessitates a certain level of intimacy. In two minutes, you need to look deeply into the other person’s eyes and heart, listen intently, ask questions that go beyond just business, and reveal a little about yourself in a way that introduces some vulnerability (yes, vulnerability; it’s contagious!) into the interaction. All these things come together to create a genuine connection. Not possible, you exclaim. Ah, but I’ve seen it done and I do it. The deep bump is not just theoretical mumbo jumbo.
There are some people who need just seconds, rather than minutes, to pull off a deep bump. Former President Bill Clinton, for instance, is the master. I’ve watched him up close as he works a line of well-wishers and fans (and sometimes, strident opponents). With each person, President Clinton will reach out to shake his or her hand. Most of the time, he’ll use two hands or clasp a person’s elbow to create instantaneous warmth. He’ll make direct eye contact and, in that fleeting moment, ask a personal question or two. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard different people from the same event comment about how incredible it was to be the sole focus of the man’s attention. And that’s even the Republicans.
The profoundness of that connection doesn’t come from the President’s desire to impart his opinion or riff on policy. His goal is at once very simple and powerful. The President wants you to like him (so in his own now-famous words, he “feels” what you feel). When he shows in those brief moments that he likes and cares about you, the human response is to reciprocate. He is finely tuned in to the radio station that we each listen to, WIIFM, also known as What’s In It for Me? I never once heard Clinton ask for a vote or talk about himself when engaged in these quick, casual encounters. His questions always revolved around what the other person was thinking, what was troubling them.
Know Your Targets
You’re ready to bump. Now you just need someone to bump against. At each conference, I keep a list of three or four people I’d most like to meet on a folded piece of paper in my jacket pocket. I check off each person as I meet them. Beside their name, I’ll jot down what we talked about and make a note about how I’m going to contact them later. And, once you’ve met with and engaged someone, you find yourself chatting again and again throughout the conference.
Breaks Are No Time to Take a Break
Breaks are where the real work happens at a conference. Make sure and stake out the right place. Have you ever noticed how guests gather in the kitchen or some other central place when you have gatherings at home? One warm and centrally located spot is often the center of any party. The same holds true at a business gathering. Determine where most people will gather, or at least pass, and station yourself there. This might be near the food table, the bar, or the reception area. Be on your game during these times. U.S. News & World Report revealed Henry Kissinger’s technique for commanding a room: “Enter the room. Step to the right. Survey the room. See who is there. You want other people to see you.”
If you didn’t think I was a nut before, now it’s a certainty. I know I’ve told you to follow up already, but that’s how vitally important I think it is. So here it is again: follow up. After that, follow up again. Then, after you’ve done that, follow up once more. I don’t like to put it off or it might not get done. How many of you have cards from events that occurred months ago or even longer? That’s a lost opportunity. During speeches, I’ll sit in the back and write follow-up e-mails to the people I just met at the previous break. Everyone you talked with at the conference needs to get an e-mail reminding them of their commitment to talk again. I also like sending a note to the speakers, even if I didn’t get a chance to meet them.
It’s the People, Not the Speakers
You’ve probably already figured this rule out by now. I don’t often find the content of conferences particularly useful. I read a lot. I think about these subjects constantly and talk to a lot of people. By the time I get to a conference, I know the substance of what’s going to be said.
Never Eat Alone: And Other Secrets to Success, One Relationship at a Time by Keith Ferrazzi, Tahl Raz
“We all are learning, modifying, or destroying ideas all the time. Rapid destruction of your ideas when the time is right is one of the most valuable qualities you can acquire. You must force yourself to consider arguments on the other side.
— Charles T. Munger”
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