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Oct 24, 2003
How To

A Shy Person's Guide to Networking at Trade Shows

SUMMARY: OK, you spent all this money to attend the show. Your goal is to network for your company, and learn as much as you can from speakers and attendees. But, if you're shy, you just feel like sinking through the floor.

Here's help:
-- On walking the trade show floor
-- Three strategies to network at show cocktail parties
-- 9 best practical networking tips
-- How to sort leads for follow-up afterwards
Do you dread walking trade show floors, because you're there to network but you're a bit shy? We talked with Diane Darling, author of The Networking Survival Guide, to get specific practical tips to help you network with confidence.

-> Start networking prior to the show date

The biggest mistake you can make is waiting until you're at the show to begin networking.

Instead, email three people you want to meet in advance, saying, "I'm really looking forward to hearing your comments (or seeing your new gadgets)."

This puts the relationship on a whole different level. "When everyone who hasn't done their pre-networking is trying to get a person's attention, you have the right to walk up and say, 'Hey, I see you're really busy, just wanted to say hello,'" she says. "You begin to establish a long-term relationship and not a one-time hit."

You can also ask colleagues and customers who know people you'd like to meet if they'd be willing to arrange a sit-down over a cup of coffee for the three of you.

-> On walking the trade show floor

Try positioning yourself in the neighborhood of the person you want to meet. Once you have a chance to introduce yourself, be aware of body language, Darling urges. Crossing of arms, shifting of weight, and darting eyes indicate restlessness. Say, "It's been a pleasure talking to you," and move on quickly.

Your goal was to establish a toehold in a relationship. You can now follow-up later on the phone or at other meetings to have an extended conversation.

-> Three strategies to network at show cocktail parties

Strategy #1: Team up
Go with a friend, split up at the door, make your way around the room in opposite directions, then meet up again.

This way, you have a safe harbor to which you're heading, and it's easier to move forward when you have a goal in sight (a friendly face at the other side of the room). However, don't make the most-common mistake of sticking to each other's sides the whole evening. You're not there to meet each other.

Strategy #2: Arrive early
Though it may be awkward because there are only three other people in the room, Darling suggests arriving early so you have someone to approach and can form "an early clump." Folks are usually relieved to have someone new join them.

Strategy #3: Talk to the organizers
The people organizing the party know who's there and who isn't, and they're often underappreciated. Instead of treating them like servants, says Darling, remember that "the gatekeepers run the world."

Enlist their help in making connections -- especially if name badges are hard to read.

-> Be an insider by volunteering

Try to get a volunteer job during the show. Offer to give out name badges or be the point person for a speaker. Much like helping out at the punch bowl at high school dances, it's a great way for shy people to gain enough confidence to step out into the room.

The downside, of course, is sometimes people treat you like dirt, Darling says. "Others are like, 'Well, cool, how nice of you to help out.'"

However, don't try to network while you're volunteering. It's easier to network later, when you've become "visible" to people again.

-> On follow-up

Darling makes two photocopies of all business cards she gets at shows. One copy goes into a three ring binder forever, plus she enters all names into her computer.

Then she uses the second set of photocopies to work with. She starts by dividing the photocopies into three groups:

-Group A: People who needs to be contacted within 24-48 hours. "My hope is that I have more A's than anything, because I owe them something. Maybe they want a workshop, or maybe they just want to know what life is like in Colorado, and I can say, 'I haven't lived there in 20 years but I just talked to someone who lives there,' so I do an e-introduction."

-Group B: People she follows up with in 30 days.

-Group C: Goes on her mailing list for her print newsletters and an occasional postcard. (Note: unless someone gives you explicit permission, never ever add a name to your email newsletter list just because someone gave you their card.)

-> 9 best practical networking tips

Tip #1. Form mutually beneficial relationships.

It's not only about finding people who can help you. It's about finding people you can help.

For example, she explains, a reporter asked her if she had a connection at a specific newspaper, and prefaced the remark by saying, "I don't want to bother you." Darling's response was, "You're not bothering me. You're giving me a legitimate reason to call" these people.

By helping the reporter out, she strengthened her own network.

"I get everybody else connected, say here's what's in it for you, here's what's in it for you, then I walk away," she says.

Tip #2. Don't expect too much from the first encounter

"People are putting way too much pressure on themselves for these relationships," she says. "It's like saying on a first date, when are we going to get married and how many kids will we have?"

Most good things that come from networking happen years later, once you have leveraged your relationships.

Tip #3. Focus on quality, not quantity.

If you have four or five quality people that you can reach out to any time, then you can give up most of the rest of them, Darling says.

Tip #4. Ask yourself, "Who are five people I want to know, and who are five people who want to know me?"

"If I'm selling networking workshops," says Darling, "who are the people who want to meet me? Maybe the people who are doing great in sales and marketing but are missing the networking portion of it. So then I'd talk to the conference organizers themselves and say, hey, the reason people go to conferences is to network, so how about doing an interactive thing on networking?"

Tip #5. Don't be overly-aggressive

Say you're speaking with a new contact and in the course of the conversation, the contact mentions a friend or co-worker that you're dying to meet. Don't say, "Can you give me their number?"

That puts your contact on the spot -- instead, try, "Oh, that sounds really interesting. If I can ever be of service to that person please give them my name," Darling suggests.

Be mindful that you always want to give your connections
something that they can say "yes" to.

Tip #6. Practice

"I have a fear of talking to strangers, so I do a lot of
practicing with people I'll probably never see again," Darling says. Practicing gets you into the mindset of networking, "and once it gets into your spirit, chance encounters happen," she says.

Great questions to get the conversation ball rolling at trade shows include, "Who's your favorite speaker so far?" and "What are you most hoping to get out of this show?"

Tip #7. Allow yourself to have superficial conversations -- then steer them

Once you start in on small talk, you can lead the conversation in the direction you want. "It's not about me or about you, but it's about where the two of us can come together," says Darling.

The people who do small talk well make it look easy, she says, "but it's just because we know the pattern."

Tip #8. Don't clump with friends

Painful but true: stick with the people you already know and you'll miss out.

Tip #9. Sometimes, just have a cup of coffee

Don't feel you always need to be networking. "There are times when you just want to have a cup of coffee," she says. "If an agenda pops up later, that's great."

Contact info for Diane (please don't abuse it):
Diane Darling
Author of The Networking Survival Guide
See Also:

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