Want to Find Networking Success at a Conference? Pay Attention!

The man stood in front of his booth, scanning the crowd for the next person to engage in conversation. There weren’t many people around at this time during the conference as most people were in breakout sessions. Nonetheless, his stance and demeanor were those of someone who wanted to engage.

I will talk to anyone who seems willing to talk to me, so I approached him. He shook my hand firmly and looked me straight in the eye. I did the same.

I mentioned that most people manning booths were either talking among themselves or fully engaged in their devices, oblivious to the potential business opportunities passing them by. He agreed, adding that his father had been a furniture salesman and taught him the basics of working a conference.

What a coincidence, I replied. My father was a salesman, too. I spent many happy times accompanying him to a twice-yearly exhibition at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds. I would watch him interact with current and prospective customers, always ready with a firm handshake and a bit of banter.

My father would leave me in charge of the booth when he needed the restroom or when he got lunch for us both. I would greet customers as best I could, quickly mentioning that my dad would be back soon. (Total aside: the brownies that were part of the lunch at this conference were the best I’ve eaten. No wonder I kept going with my father to this event.)

You don’t need to be a salesman’s kid to understand the basics of salesmanship. The first rule is: Always be ready to engage.

Get in it to win it

The second rule is: Stay the hell off your phone. I have no idea how much money companies paid for booths at this conference for nearly 1,500, but I’m sure it wasn’t pocket change. Regardless, I saw many booth attendants doing things other than engage prospects and customers. Most were engrossed with their phones or laptops. Others were talking among themselves, rather hunting for the next prospect.

Attendees weren’t much better. The venue for this event has plenty of areas for impromptu meetings, but I saw dozens of people talking on or fiddling with their phones or using their laptops. I’m sure many of these people had legitimate business reasons to be otherwise engaged, but my guess is that it was less than half.

So if you’re too engrossed with your phone to engage with other people, what are you doing at a conference? I paid several hundred dollars to attend, and I made the most of it.

Third rule: Meeting people isn’t a volume proposition, nor is it all about what you’re selling or looking to accomplish.

The initial meeting is about finding a business connection. I bonded with one man because we are fans of the same English soccer team, but he’s not a prospect. A woman I met has her national office just a few miles from my home. She’s not a prospect, either, but I plan on visiting her at work soon because we hit it off. A meeting may be about how I can help someone, which I’m happy to do if I’m able.

The man I met who was ready to engage? Turns out, he definitely is a prospect. But that meeting never would have happened if we both hadn’t been willing to engage.

Think about that the next time you whip out your phone at a networking event or a conference.