by Matt Mattson
So, I don’t love using this word, but I’ve admitted it before and it’s true… I am an introvert.
That said, I’m attending a conference this week that I’ve never attended. I’m flying solo. And I need to make the most of this event. It’s important to me personally and professionally. Also, I teach #SocialExcellence for a living, so I better get my act together.
That got me thinking about how many other people find themselves attending big conferences (often by themselves) and who might feel anxious, unprepared, and unsure of how to be successful.
Here are my TOP 10 TIPS FOR CONFERENCE SUCCESS (especially for introverted folks)
Make Relationships Your Goal: First, have a goal. Most people spend big money on conference attendance and never stop to ask what they’re hoping to accomplish. I recommend focusing on building new meaningful personal connections. Not passing out as many business cards as humanly possible. You want to come home with real people you really know and can really stay connected with. Every person’s career/purpose will be bolstered by a true “family” of people they trust in the field. It’s not about knowing as many people as possible, it’s about having a friend group within the industry.
One Meaningful Connection Per Two Waking Hours: A lot of people go into a conference thinking they have to meet 10,000 people, and there’s so little time, and also they have to eat, and oh God how are they going to do it, and what if I forget names!!!!!! Be cool, bro. Set some realistic and smart expectations. You’re aiming for real relationships. Not tons of names.* Make your goal 1 person per 2 hours. You’ll probably go beyond that. But that’s reachable and manageable. It also allows for some downtime if you need it. At the end of each conference day, think about the 4-6 people you’ve truly connected with over the last 8-12 hours of conference fun. That’s success
*But What If I’m a Vendor/Salesperson or Looking for Leads? You’ll note my asterisk in the paragraph above. Some people (me included sometimes) really need to come back from a conference with a list of leads to which they can sell their stuff (or recruit, or fund raise, or whatever). I get it. Here’s my tip for you — create little moments of emotional connection, and write it down along with their name. Names alone can’t be considered a success. You can buy a list. No, you want a name AND a shared memory to follow up on. Use #SocialExcellence (buy the book here) to tap into the power of creating momentary connection — use curiosity, generosity, authenticity, and vulnerability to create just a little heart to heart connection. Write down those names AND moments. That’s success. Now you have a reason to follow up and something to remember together when you do.
Have 3-5 Favorite Questions: I don’t mean work-related salesy questions. I mean your favorite three, four, or five questions you can ask anyone to strike up a real conversation. Mine are, “What’s your story?” “Tell me about your family,” “Give me a highlight (of your day/conference/etc.),” and “What’s next/What are you looking forward to?” These questions are my go-to questions to make small talk something more than small.
Never Eat Alone (Well, actually, go ahead if you need to): Meals are great places to deepen connections — remember, depth is better than quantity as long as your quantity is at least 4-6 different real relationships per day. One of our favorite books from the last 15 years is by a guy named Keith Ferrazzi. He wrote a book called Never Eat Alone, but he also wrote this fun guide to being a “Conference Commando.” Read the guide. Share meals (O.K., you get one Room Service meal, but that’s it!). Bonus tip: Set up lunch and dinner at breakfast time and breakfast at dinner time the day before. Plan your meals ahead. Ask, “I don’t have plans for breakfast/lunch/dinner yet, what are your plans?”
Take a Breather (Or Several): Almost every conference I attend, I will find a 20-30 minute portion in the middle of the day to go back to my hotel room, check my E-mail, and mostly sit in silence. Seriously, do this. You will be friendlier, more curious, and far more engaging if you care for yourself throughout the day. Don’t be afraid to disappear. Tell your FOMO to chill out for a minute, you’re not missing anything that a good question can’t catch you up on — “I needed a break this afternoon, give me some highlights of what I missed.” Just don’t forget to give yourself a pep talk after 20-minutes to get back out there! You only get one chance to make the most of this conference.
Carry A Book: This is a classic move by my good friend Woody Woodcock. He always carries a book he’s reading as he makes his way around a conference. Not in a backpack. Not along with a binder, a conference program, give-aways from the exhibit hall, and a bunch of other junk. He always has a book that he’s reading and a small journal. That’s it. The journal allows him to take notes, and the book allows other people to ask, “What book are you reading?” Of course Woody always chooses a book that he’s both interested in and that will allow him to have conversations about a topic of his choice. What book will you be carrying around your next conference? Bonus: Need another introvert break? Find a coffee shop, sit down, and read that book!
Have Fun in the Exhibit Hall: Exhibit halls are fun. Each table/booth represents people who are being paid to carry on a conversation with you! Pressure’s on them! LOL. But another reason I love it is that those exhibitors are just begging for someone interesting to come by so they don’t have to give that tired old pitch again. Make the exhibit hall your playground. Use the (required) energy of the exhibitors to boost your own energy. Ask them fun zone questions (<—-ooh. click that link! It’s a good one). Give them high fives. Ask them to tell you a joke. Take selfies with them and tag them on social media (they’ll love this). Do all this with a “wing man” — someone you met before the exhibit hall and asked, “Hey, want to check out the exhibit hall together and see if we can make some of the vendors our friends?”
Real Learning Doesn’t Happen In Sessions: I really believe this. The real learning happens around the edges of a conference. It happens with the people you talk with in the hallways. It happens because you ask good questions to other attendees and you listen to learn from them. Real learning happens over lunch or dinner, or in the giant lines at Starbucks. Real learning happens because you’re prepared to ask questions that matter to you and that allow people to share good insights. An old trick: ask better questions by starting them with one of these phrases — “How” “Why” “Tell me about” “Explain to me” “Help me understand”.
Be Healthy (or Something): I run. Especially at conferences. It makes me feel better about myself, it allows me some quiet “me time,” and I almost always run into someone else (either at the gym or on nearby scenic running routes) who is attending the same conference and who I introduce myself to (either during the run or when I find them later at the conference). For you maybe that’s a workout. Or reading/journaling in a coffee shop early in the morning. Or going for a walk. Or checking out local stores. Or whatever — do you, but be aware of others around you who might be doing them as well.
Enjoy your next conference! Be successful, be happy, and be yourself. Remember, the goal is relationships and relationships are built through authentic connection with other humans. Take down your walls of “conference fake smile” and “business-y perfection” and “too cool to care.” Everyone else at the conference hates the fakeness and the craziness that they normally encounter at these things too. Help build genuine connection. Need advice or a pep talk? Email me or find me at @PhiredUpMatt on Twitter.