Saul’s Tips: how to prep like a pro for your first professional conference

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Hey. Saul here. Who doesn’t love a great conference? The people, the networking, the parties, the swag, am I right? I’ve probably been to two hundred conferences over the years and I am going to share my prep tips with you so you too will get to go to another one.

Whether you are heading to your first professional conference or your 30th, it’s a good idea to try to keep one thing in mind at all times: this is not a road trip, well I guess if you are driving there it might be. Maybe it’s better to say it’s not a vacation, or an excuse to sleep in. Conferences are serious business. Unless you’re dressed like Scarlet Witch and headed to ComicCon (and maybe even then), you’re there to get business done.

The better prepared you are, the more successful your conference will be, and the more successful you are the more your company will love you, and the more your company loves you…I think you see where I am going here. Just to be clear I’m not talking tons of time to prepare,  but a few simple common sense steps can easily make the investment in your attendance worth it.  Here are my tips to make sure you are as ready as you need to be:

Know what you want to achieve before you get there: Want to connect with key people? Don’t leave it to chance. Figure out the type of person you want to meet. What are your goals? Do you want media intros? Biz dev? Once you know that you get to work. Find out who is going. Make target lists. Is there a hashtag? Search the conference hashtag for people talking about going. Do this a few weeks ahead of time and start making lists of those people. Map to your target lists. Scan LinkedIn for connection points. Ask for intros. Do some research. Go into places like Plancast, Eventbrite, and Facebook. If it’s a conference with a lot of local feeder events like SXSW, search those events and see who is going.
Have clear goals and always ask people for help. Find conference veterans and ask for tips. The ask should be genuine (always) but even by asking you are making a connection that you might have hoped to make while you are there.

Prioritize: Your goal is to talk to everyone, but key people first. You should always try to connect with 1/3 of the room. As you get to be a better networker you will know when to politely leave a conversation to find a new one. Politely is the key part because you never know who anyone knows and conferences can be like high school so following the “Don’t be a dick” rule is pretty standard. This might sound like stalking. Well I am definitely a stalker but I do it in the most charming way possible. My company is paying me to deliver results and that’s my focus. Conferences are fun but if you care about what you do and want the privilege of going to more conferences you need to try to make them pay for themselves.

Shoes: Have good shoes. Lots of walking at these things. Plus, people notice shoes.

Work hard to bring out your inner extrovert. Even if you’re an introvert. Especially if you’re an introvert. Reach out to people you want to meet in advance. Set up coffee dates or a meal. Free food always tastes better. It’s a proven fact. But no matter how many people you arrange ahead of time you need to leave yourself open for magic. Some of the best opportunities I have had at events have come from a stranger I didn’t know and just started talking to. I am pretty quiet in general and even introverted but in situations like this I force myself to talk non stop until I get back on the plane. Its exhausting but nothing ever happens business wise in your hotel room. (Lovemaking can happen in your room but that’s for another post and boy do I have stories.)

Don’t be choosy, talk to everyone. My basic rule is I talk to everyone except in public bathrooms. I ask questions. I listen. I add value. Chances are most of the people won’t be a fit for your goals but you may meet someone who is a perfect biz match for someone you already met in your conversations and if you can introduce those two people chances are they will try to do the same. Don’t be selfish in your networking. People love connectors and that’s how you become memorable.

Working a room is easier with a partner. Find someone. You never want to be the creepy alone guy. I have gone as far as to hire magicians and mimes to network with me … This is easier with a wing person. No one wants to feel like they are going to get trapped talking to someone. A carried-around cardboard cutout of me, preferably life size, can work if you’re short on real people, I am always honoured to be a wing person, and trust me that will start some conversations.

Don’t lose sight of the basics. The trick to successful ‘networking’? Literally? Is to to care about what the other people are saying. Sounds silly I know but most people are so focused on one thing and people realize that. Being human always wins. If there isn’t a biz match you can still ask something about them and make a real world connection. And then politely move on. I add value by sprinkling work talk with things like city suggestions, or ask them about TV and movies. It’s not that different than dating. I am trying to make love to everyone. The definition of make love just changes with the location.

Measure and analyze: Bring the love, but be about the business: keep yourself focused. Your activity should be attached to your goals. If it’s biz dev, then a bunch of leads to follow up on is a great metric. If it’s media, then one post or a bunch of follow up interviews could be the metric. Everything starts with the goals and then you work backwards, so make sure you take a look at your results and keep getting better.

Have fun. If it’s just work, it shows.

 

Next column: Now you’re onsite for three days of sessions and networking: my tips for maximizing your experience!

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Saul Colt

Saul Colt

Saul Colt is the Chief Evangelist at Xero.com, an easy to use online accounting software for designed for small businesses and its advisors. In his career he has been named as one of the iMEDIA 25: Internet Marketing Leaders & Innovators as well as been called one of Canada’s best community builders/experiential marketers. NYT Best selling author and Internet Pioneer Chris Brogan once referred to Saul as “exactly who you want representing your company” and that message has been echoed by media properties ranging from Inc to Forbes Magazine. In a previous life Saul was the first international employee of Zipcar and the person responsible for launching Zipcar into the Canadian marketplace, was a key person in the growth of FreshBooks.com (The #1 Cloud Accounting service for Small Business Owners) and even knows what it is like to work for a large corporation from his time in a leadership role at Rogers Communications. On top of all that Saul is also a Professional Speaker and Consultant specializing in Social Media, Customer Service, Community Building and Word of Mouth Marketing.Saul loves all people, especially women and is tired of people asking him to remove his shirt. In his free time he collects Nike Air Force One sneakers, watches lots of Movies and just happens to be the Smartest Man in the World. Follow Saul on Twitter @saulcolt or from his website www.saulcolt.com
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