Prepare or Flounder: Making a Tech Event Work for You
by Tom Bunzel (email@example.com)
Fellow journalists and I frequently joke that we could attend a different technology trade show or conference just about every day of the year. Assuming that other priorities exist in one's life, how does one make the most of a specific meeting or show?
Probably the most important aspect of a successful experience is having one or more clear objectives–know who you are and why you are there.
You may laugh, but in today's complex world, event attendees may not be entirely sure why they are going to a specific function. Maybe their company bought a table or a booth; or the firm they're with is a sponsor; or someone told them that Internet World is a cool show and they just got a Web site.
On the other hand, if you need to hire a key employee, or you want to become a key employee, or need some software, or funding, you have a clear goal at an event and that can keep you focused.
I have even seen folks at VIC networking events in L.A. put jobs they are seeking to fill, or find, right on their nametags. Which brings up an important point–where possible, put the most effective identification on your nametag that you can.
If you're with a hot company, obviously that affiliation is what you will use, but advertising that you are a designer, an artist, a writer, or something more creative (someone I know is a ``Catalyst") can stimulate the activity you most want–networking.
It's also not a bad idea to make a short list of exhibitors or presenters that you don't want to miss, and refer to it when your attention is diverted. On the other hand, at a big overwhelming show like COMDEX, logistics are hard and sheer luck and serendipity can be the best way to find anything or anyone.
Let's face it, unless you are the technological equivalent of the Lone Ranger, the whole point of any event is to meet new people and learn new things.
Granted, there are some local events where attendees just like to mingle with folks they already know in a comfortable social setting, but particularly at a conference or trade show, there are experts available that you may never have an opportunity to approach at any other time or place.
If you spend the entire event chatting with the pal you brought along, you are probably missing out on some exciting experiences. It also makes it hard for anyone who wants a word with you to approach politely.
There are a lot of folks at any event that you could never meet or speak to or ask an important question of at any other time in your life.
And it's not just the folks up on the stage. While you are waiting for a speech or seminar to begin, it's a good idea to at least make eye contact with someone nearby. They may be a good contact, or just know something about the event to come that will make it more meaningful to you.
After a speech, the headliners are generally mobbed with folks asking questions and begging for business cards. This is probably the worst time to approach a speaker–he or she is barraged with requests and in a hurry to collect his or her things and decompress.
If you want a business card or email address, they are frequently available in the program or with a phone call to the branch office. But that is not to say that if you have an important issue to discuss with a speaker or panelist that you should forego the opportunity–far from it.
It's much more effective to approach a speaker at a social gathering before or after the conference, and the fact that you recognize him or her (even if he is wearing one of those dumb ribbons) will break the ice. If you actually remember part of the speaker's presentation, so much the better. If you are not privy to the social functions, most speakers, unless they are Bill Gates or Larry Ellison, will generally have some curiosity about the remainder of the event, and can be approached at an exhibit hall or outside the speakers' lounge.
Otherwise, if you are desperate for a parting word, a great place to get a brief tete a tete is at valet parking–where everyone has to wait a few precious minutes at least–or if it's a big fish–where the limos are parked.
This brings up a touchy generational issue. In the technology ``culture", and I use the term loosely, it has been my experience that many people are oblivious to the fact that someone is already engaged in a meaningful conversation before they barge in.
I cannot count the number of times at cocktail parties that someone, usually a younger attendee, will simply come up and introduce themselves while another person and I are practically in mid-sentence. Believe it or not, this is not an effective icebreaker. People can sense when you are seeking their attention, and they will generally close out a thought and accommodate your entry into a conversation.
Which leads to the other side of the equation–unless you have literally fallen in love with the person with whom you're speaking, give them a chance to move on and talk to someone else. Particularly if you have a clear idea of what they do and how the two of you can connect, you can establish the parameters for future communication within a few minutes. Of course, some conversations take on a life of their own, and particularly where technology is the subject, they can go on and on and on.
It's just a good idea to do a reality check when you're into a long soliloquy to see whether what you have to say is falling on receptive ears.
Which reminds me, a short ``elevator pitch" about who you are and what you do is a great thing to carry around in your head and use as a self introduction, but the key to networking is showing a sincere interest in others, and asking insightful questions about another person's area of concern. This will stimulate real conversation and not get you the blank stare reserved for insurance salesmen and panhandlers.
Finally, if you happen to be staffing a booth for an exhibitor, please do not ask every person who enters your booth, ``Can I answer any questions?" How can anyone have any questions about something they know little or nothing about? It's your job to give them some insight so that they can ask a question.
Even if your booth is called ``BUY-A-CAR.COM," I don't know anything about why you exist or why I should care.
When I hear this opening, I generally say, ``Yeah, what the hell do you do?" This will often begin a long robotic demo during which I am not expected to ask a single question.
If you happen to staff a booth, try to scan the visitor's nametag, make actual eye contact, and engage them in a bit of conversation that relates your product or service to what they seem to be about. Like, ``you're with the press? Would you like to write about a computer that can read your mind?"
Of course, if that is your product you don't need to do the inane or the obvious–you should know my question before I ask it.
Finally where true business networking is concerned, the event where you meet is generally the appetizer where you get the initial taste–the actual deal will be consummated with a follow-up after the event.
Sure, there are deals closed in hotel lobbies and suites at every show, but unless you're sure of where you stand with a prospect, it's best to use a trade show or conference to prospect and lay the groundwork for further contact. Pestering for commitment on the first date doesn't usually work–most business is consummated in the framework of a relationship.
Enough about etiquette, it's time to make a few points about logistics. Generally there are two types of attendees–the ones who preregister and the ones who either miss lunch or the keynote. If you can't get your badge mailed ahead of time, at least have a printed confirmation of your registration with you when you arrive at an event and for goodness sakes, bring along some business cards.
What are you going to do–win the door prize with a cocktail napkin? Give Bill Gates a torn off corner of the program guide with your email address?
And don't cross out anything on your business card and write it in ink. Or, if you absolutely have to, do a couple of dozen and get them ready before you come to the event.
Having a business card with your mailing address is also a good idea if you want literature or products sent to you, instead of schlepping them back to your car or hotel, or eventually onto an airplane.
By the way, you don't have to take everything that people give you. The first thing I do with a ``goody bag" is throw out everything I don't need and can't give away to friends' kids. If you happen to receive press kits, believe it or not, you can open them up and take out a business card, and one or two key pieces of promotional material. Then you can toss the heavy cardboard folder and the useless demo CD of a program you'll never use.
The one thing I will always keep in a goody bag is a hat–in case lunch is outside or I parked outside.
A great reason to be friendly and talk to folks at an event, particularly a trade show or conference, it to find out the buzz or the theme. Almost every event has a hot product or idea underlying it–and it's often not what's featured in the program.
For example, at an entertainment-oriented show, lots of exhibitors and speakers may be talking about video compression and streaming technology, but what's really going on has to do with attracting visitors or customer service. And even with hype about cool technology in abundance, the really significant stuff might not be getting the attention it deserves, or might be off in a tiny booth at the rear of the exhibit hall.
How do you get past the hype and the noise? You need to listen to what other people are saying–not just what the event folks are pitching–and you should make an effort to ask others at the show what they've seen or heard that they find particularly interesting. Frequently, it's not the featured products or concepts but something offbeat and ahead of the curve.
Again, the show promoters and the printed program will generally feature the usual suspects–products from Apple, IBM, Microsoft, etc. But it's often the tacky booth with the banner coming off the hook that has something new and unusual–and hard to understand. That's because it's truly new.
Which brings us to another key issue–how can you believe what you are seeing? Exhibitor demos are notoriously shallow and seldom reveal problems with a program or product that a user will experience in the real world. How do you get past the hype?
First of all, if you are particularly interested in a specific product, try to get a one-on-one demo where you can drill down deeper. At a crowded show this is tough, but you can be there early in the morning, or hit the exhibit hall during a popular keynote speech, when it is relatively empty.
(Most keynote speeches are rebroadcast or posted online anyway).
Then, try to get a demo from someone actually with the company, and preferably a product manager or technical person, not a sales or marketing rep. Showing your own familiarity with a product will generally get a demonstrator to reveal tips and tricks beyond the shallow demo, and a direct contact email address and phone number with a product manager or support specialist can be worth gold.
The other neat thing about a trade show is that competing products in a category, or complementary products that work together, are on the same exhibit hall floor. While a question is fresh in your mind, you can get an answer from a real live person, not a robotic automatic email responder, to a key question or issue. Don't let the opportunity pass you by.
Often a new software product raises issues of compatibility and interoperability with other systems. You will never have a better chance to get those issues addressed than at an industry event. In addition, seeing how vendors have configured their demos, to play video or stream other media, can give you a heads up on how to avoid problems with conflicting hardware.
Eventually, at any event, it will end with either burnout, valet parking or both. The impulse is to head for the exits with the lemmings and use your cell phone to dull the pain.
If you haven't had the foresight to book an early flight or leave ahead of the rush, using the getaway time as a way to reinforce your contact with key individuals, or seek out those you may have missed, is a better use of your time.
Sometimes you can share a cab or give a ride to a stranger who turns out to be the perfect person for the job you are trying to fill, or is looking for someone just like… you. Frequently the speaker who has been inaccessible throughout the event is stuck at the valet stand, or waiting out the rush in the hotel bar, and is happy to have a brief chat with someone who understood his or her presentation.
And finally, when you're back home or in the office, you're still not done. Write the folks you said you'd write and return the calls that come your way. That puts closure on the event and ensures that when you see them again the story you've only begun can continue the way you expect.
Tom Bunzel works as ``Painless PC," a consulting and training facility in West Los Angeles, specializing in business, presentation and Web-authoring applications. He can be reached at (310) 286-0969 or firstname.lastname@example.org. To find out more about Community Vision, go to http://www.painlesspc.com/cvi.html
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