Give to Get at Your Next Conference

At a recent conference, I was sitting with someone I had just met. Joshua and I were from different worlds, in fact, we were from different sectors within the same industry. Yet, here we were, getting to know each other, finding common points of interest. Together, we started questioning why it seems like member engagement in Associations is dwindling.   Between the personal and professional demands of their members, associations in North America continue to see a rapid decline in membership. However, here I was, at a conference talking about the value of being “at the table” at an industry association conference.

As Joshua tells it, he had been trying to get face time with a company he knew he could help. Over the course of months, he had sent emails, made phone calls,  tried to initiate conversations on LinkedIn, and aside from speaking with “underlings,” could not get time with the CEO.

At breakfast that morning, plate in hand, he picked a table, approached the group sitting there, and inquired about the spare seat, “Is anyone sitting here, may I join you?” The standard greeting at a conference. Unbeknownst to him, there sat the CEO he’d been trying to see for months. Over the next 60 minutes, while they shared breakfast, they got to know each other, share interests and stories, and he secured an appointment for the following Monday. (Oh, I should say, he did that without making a “sales pitch.”)

In a quick survey of a few associations I am involved with, the top three reasons people are leaving is:

  • Higher demand for the members’ time, both personally and professionally
  • Corporate cutbacks – companies are shaving association membership and conferences from their expenses – no perceived ROI
  • Members don’t feel value from the association

In fact, just this week, I received an email from a long-time member saying that she wanted to redirect her leisure time, choosing not to spend her free time on activities related to work, but rather on activities that support her well being.

One of my survey responders mentioned that social media affiliations, such as LinkedIn groups, meant that she could connect to a larger pool of colleagues for “networking purposes,” while online courses fulfilled her need for growth and continual learning, two critical motivations for joining an association in the first place.

So is the value of Associations (and their respective activities) dead?

I have to challenge the line of thinking that online access gives us the same value or better value as Association conferences and meetings.

A concrete guy bumps into a meat guy at a conference one day …

Social media is powerful, no doubt. It connects you to a world that surrounds and encompasses your interest. In fact, today, social media, through their algorithms and targeting makes sure you see what is of interest to you. Making your time online so relevant to your interest and needs, feeding you the information you want. But there too is the problem. Social media plunks you into a bubble. If you surround yourself with just your interest and your perceived needs, how can you explore other options?

Case in point. At a conference, a concrete manufacturer bumps into a meat processing specialist at breakfast one day. What do they have in common? Can either fulfill a need the other has? Do they have a commonality that they can go from being a stranger to being colleagues?

Now, they could meet on social media, say if they both loved golf, or cars, or puppies. But would they have an actual connection where they can open up and explore each other? Could they have a meaningful, open conversation that explores that their motivations, their prejudices, their values and beliefs? And that, my friend, is the problem. Because chances are, their online conversation, if they have one, would be so shallow, so devoid of openness. It would be focused on their preconceived  mutual interest (remember I said prejudice?) that the best they could hope to achieve is, “Yea, I played that course, it’s great!”

The secret to getting more value from Conferences, be uncomfortable and be present.

The problem with the perceived value of association and industry conferences is not the conference. It’s you, the attendee! Yes, I am pointing a finger… YOU!

Here’s what I see. Two people, Peter and John, both from the same company, walk into a conference during the opening network event. As they walk in, they see Steve, a colleague whom they have not seen since the last conference, a year ago.  They immediately target him, shake hands and have a conversation, maybe share some appetizers and drinks. They see Dale, another mutual colleague, and they call him over. This is great. So much fun. They promise to meet up for breakfast the next morning.

And so it goes, to the point where the “networking” opportunity is wasted, and the conference “had no value.”

So let’s change the scenario. Peter and John divide and conquer. They enter the conference kick-off event with a plan: Meet people they can be of service to. Business cards in hand, they turn off their cell phones, and they work the floor. “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met, my name is Peter.”  From that point on, Peter (and John) make it about the other person: what is their name? Their company? Their interest? their reason for coming to the conference? What they hope to achieve? Peter’s and John’s only motivation is to find out, “how can I serve this person?” Making notes on business cards, they have some really powerful conversations. Maybe even to promise that they’ll follow up during the conference.

So what do you think they do the next morning? Nope, they don’t meet up with the people they met, not unless they were invited. No, Peter and John repeat the same process, splitting up, and going to breakfast tables of people they don’t know, and the process repeats. Yes, it is uncomfortable. But the connection you can make is invaluable. But only if you are present. You are not distracted by checking your emails, you are not socializing with your friends (I did not say to never socialize with your friends, it’s just not how to be productive).

6 Strategies to get the most out of your time:

1. Have business cards

I am constantly surprised how many people at conferences forget their business cards at home, in their room, in the car. It’s like showing up for work unprepared.

2. Have a plan

Understand why you are there. Make a point at the conference (2 ½ days) to make at least 15 new, deep connections (I suspect, once you get going, it’ll be more)

3. Get uncomfortable

Try not to sit with friends and people you already know – make a point to meet them for dinner after the conference. And because you are friends, tell them what you are doing!

4. Disconnect

Turn off your cell phone, and don’t check your emails when you are sitting with others – you can set your voicemail and email autoresponders to explain that you are at a conference and will get back to them. You cannot have a deep conversation if you glance at your phone to see who’s calling or emailing you.

5. Be present to serve

Enter each conversation with the intent of, “how can I be of service?” Make it about their needs, not about yours. You’ll break down barriers and build trust if you do not take the stance, “Boy, do I have a deal for you!?

6. Follow up

Once you get back to your room or office, follow up on email and LinkedIn. Send them something of value: An article you found that pertains to their pain point. A virtual introduction to a contact you know they need.

You Get What You Give

I have seen this happen time and again. You are so entrenched talking about the other person, delving into their interests and needs, that you get the inevitable question. “Hey, we’ve been talking so much about me, what about you?” Because you gave so freely of yourself, the person you are talking to will want to reciprocate. They will want to be of service to you. If they don’t, if they are a “taker,” you will know it soon enough, and you can cut them off pretty easily. But if they are a “giver” like you, you will have a lot to talk about.

Oh, and the concrete manufacturer and meat processing specialist I mentioned earlier? Well, it turns out that the meat processing plant has a huge waste stream of animal carcasses that they pay to have hauled away to landfills. The concrete manufacturer needs expensive bone meal to fortify and strengthen his concrete. A symbiotic relationship is formed that could never have happened on social media, and could never have happened if they went to the conference, hanging out with people they know, being comfortable.

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