Trade Show Networking Tips from the Pros

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The B2B Expo is back, and with it, so are the sore backs, aching feet and drained brains that come with every trade show and conference we attend.

The classic pro tips for surviving a trade show typically focus on food, clothes and accessories: wear  comfortable shoes, consider compression socks, eat right, bring Emergen-C®, pack light, etc.

For exhibitors, I can sum up the classic advice with two tips: splurge for the padded carpets, and be prepared for massive temperature shifts in the expo hall.

Even if you follow every single tip in the expo playbook, however — and score some great tchotchkes for your kids in the process, because they can never have enough branded fidget spinners — your time can still be completely wasted.

Set your sights higher than survival.

The best advice I’ve heard about trade show networking focuses less on surviving and more on thriving. Here are my three rules for trade show networking success.

  1. Do Your Homework. There are two kinds of grocery shoppers. There are ones who go aisle-by-aisle looking for things that would be great for the kitchen, and there are the ones who come to the store with a list and stick to the list. Guess which approach saves more money and time?Don’t treat the expo floor like a grocery expedition with no list. Figure out what meals (products/offerings/projects) you want to make, and what ingredients (tools/technologies/services) you’ll need to build the meals you plan. Do some homework ahead of time and prepare your list. Many shows will publish their exhibitor lists online, but even when the list isn’t available, going into the show with some ingredients in mind will help ensure a better outcome.
  2. Ask, Don’t Tell. You heard it here first, folks: communication professionals make terrible communicators. Why? Because we like to talk. And guess what? (This may come as a big surprise, and I’m so sorry the news has to come from me.) Very few people actually care about what you have to say. So your goal is to get other people to talk. How do you do that? (Apologies again if it sounds like I’m stating the obvious here, but unfortunately, we have to constantly remind ourselves of the obvious.)You do that by asking questions. They can be as broad as “how are you enjoying the Expo so far,” or as specific as “what’s keeping you up at night these days?” You can even ask leading questions that might help nudge the conversation to what you offer. But get a lot of listening, and a lot of questions, in before you attempt that nudge. Remember: the more you get the other person talking, the more positive they will feel about the encounter. 
  3. Dive, Don’t Bridge. “Bridging” is a classic technique taught to communicators and public speakers that allows them to nudge a conversation around to a key message. It’s something that comes naturally to many of us, including myself. I have what I call a “card catalog” (yeah, I’m that old) of stories, and when I’m listening to other people talk, I have a tendency to listen for cues to one of my many stories. Then, if the opportunity presents itself, I pounce with a bridge and enjoy my turn at the conversational plate. While I am an amazing storyteller if I may say so myself, I am not getting the most out of the encounter — and I’m sorry to say, neither is the other party (unless it’s a really, really good story, and I only have a couple of those).Instead of listening for cues, listen for clues. Think of yourself as an investigative reporter. How can you get more out of the speaker? Dive into what they’re sharing, and swim around in it a bit. Ask probing questions, then think of a final question that might open the opportunity for you to share an idea about how you might be able to help the other person.

Keeping these three tips in mind will make your time and financial investment in a show much more profitable!

– Todd Van Hoosear, Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce

Photo Courtesy Jeff Cutler

Be sure to attend the 2018 Business to Business Expo, taking place on Thursday, April 26th

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