You’ve spent thousands of hours cultivating your online business relationships.
You’ve exchanged thousands of emails, tweets, and messages with your internet peers.
And now you’re about to meet these people in person.
For the first time…
Feel the pressure? Worried about making a bad first impression?
Don’t worry – I have five tips that will help you send the message you aim to deliver.
Tip 1 – Dress Sharp
I know you want to be yourself. But just who are you?
I’m serious – aren’t you at this conference to improve yourself and meet others who share your ambitions for greatness? If so – then dress like the successful person you envision yourself to be.
When I think of a successful people – I don’t envision t-shirts, torn jeans, or baseball caps. Understand your clothing speaks loudly, and it screams a message before you even open your mouth. You represent your business, your family, and yourself. Clothe yourself accordingly.
Now – how specifically would I recommend you dress?
First – Pack for the environment you’re going to be in.
Most of the time that means an enclosed, climate-controlled conference center — not exactly the jungles of Borneo.
Conference clothing needs to do two basic tasks: make you look sharp and stay comfortable for a full day’s wear. Try to bring clothing that meets the following guidelines:
Comfortable – Lightweight, well-fitted, and sweat-proofed with good undergarments (and a good lining on suits or jackets). Avoid things you’re going to have to carry around all day like a heavy overcoat. And I can’t over-stress the importance of good fit – bad fit will not only make a $1,000 suit look cheap but it makes wearing your clothing uncomfortable.
Dressy – This doesn’t mean a business suit, but you want to look sharp while sending your message. There is nothing wrong with aiming for the high end of dress-casual — jackets for the gentlemen, hose for the ladies, etc.
Relevant – Related to the point above, but dress to the expectations of your customer. Are you a lawyer representing your internet focused law firm? I expect you to dress sharper than the man promoting his new fitness company.
One unique piece – You’re selling yourself, so don’t err too far on the side of being too conservatively dressed. There should be something about the outfit that’s unique and eye-catching; keep it small such as a colored pocket square or an artistic watch face. Don’t dress like a clown – unless you happen to be one.
A well-dressed person sends the signal that they care about the details – that’s the type of person I look to meet and partner up with.
Tip 2 – Introduce Yourself
Approaching a total stranger is hard. But it’s often what needs to happen. No matter how good your skills, product, or service, only a fraction of your potential clients are going to take the initiative to approach you about business. Most of the time you’ll have to go to them.
Fortunately, one basic introduction works for pretty much every interaction:
- Pick out the person or people you want to introduce yourself to.
- Approach with a smile and extend your hand, offering a handshake. If there are multiple people, offer it to the closest.
- Say “Hi there” or “Excuse me,” as seems appropriate to you. Continue “My name’s [name]. I thought I should come over and introduce myself.”
- From this point, offer a brief (no more than a sentence or two) explanation of your reason for contacting this person.
- If they seem interested, offer your business card. Say “I don’t want to keep you here, but I’d love to get in touch after the conference.” Then move on, unless the conversation is really going well and everyone seems to want to prolong it.
With small situation variations, this basic framework will get you through pretty much every introduction you have to make.
Practice it often by introducing yourself to as many people as possible. You never know which contacts will turn out to be useful ones.
Tip 3 – Make Interesting Business Conversation
An introduction and exchange of business cards is the quickest conference interaction. Longer conversations usually happen at planned meetings, or at unstructured “mixer” type events where people are left to drift naturally into conversation.
Making good business conversation relies on staying focused: keep your comments relevant to whatever shared interests you and the other people in the conversation have. Avoid personal tangents, and don’t be afraid to wrap things up (with a business card handoff, if you haven’t made one yet) rather than letting the conversation drift into personal matters.
Exercise a few strategies for keeping conversations on-point:
- Do the research. When you know you’re going to be meeting a particular person, spend some time reading up on his/her work and what the latest developments are. Use it to lead into the conversation.
- Set time limits for yourself. You can also use them as a way of starting a conversation: “Give me two and a half minutes, and I think I can impress you here.”
- Avoid talking about yourself. Ask questions that encourage other people to tell you more about themselves or their work instead. The only time you should mention your own business is in reference to how it relates to the other person’s interests (“It sounds like I might be able to help you with your project,” etc.)
- Watch for negative body language: fidgeting, arms crossed tightly; feet pointing and body turning away from you. These are signs that the listener wants to be done with you.
There’s nothing wrong with a longer conversation if everyone seems interested in it — just be mindful of the fact that people do likely have networking needs of their own, and won’t be able to spend all day with you even if they want to. Trade business cards and arrange to meet or speak again soon, and move on.
Tip 4 – Mind Your Manners
Making a good impression is about more than your clothes and your handshake. Conferences have their own unique social rituals, and you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes:
- Avoid using your cell phone in public spaces. Go back to the hotel room or find a quiet corner if you have to make a call. Try to avoid texting, checking e-mail, or using the web entirely, unless it’s an immediate business necessity.
- Be mindful of meal times and schedules if you’re involved in any such planning. Carry plenty of cash, including small bills, so that you’re not the one struggling in any check-splitting scenario.
- Ask before taking pictures, and be sparing with tags if you put them on Facebook. Most people will only want direct, flattering shots of themselves tagged — leave crowd shots alone, especially ones at the pool or some other area where people are less formally attired.
- Brush your teeth after meals. This is more important than you think. Talking to people all day is a lot more fun when they don’t have bad breath. If not possible chew gum for 5 minutes and then get rid of it or pop a breath mint.
- Take it easy on drinks — usually no more than two a night. Alcohol can help you loosen up, but the end result tends to be babbling or worse, which is even more counter-productive than not saying anything at all.
Tip 5 – Follow Up
When it’s all said and done, it’s time to sort through your business cards and do some follow-ups:
- In general, everyone that gave you their contact info should get at least a short note, unless you’re dealing with a truly massive volume of cards.
- If it was a hosted event, send the hosts a thank-you note as well — this isn’t usually an issue at large business conferences, but if someone opened their house or business up to guests, they get a note.
- People that you don’t have a specific interest in can just get a short e-mail along the lines of “Great talking to you at the conference. Drop me a line any time.”
- Anyone you do have a particular business interest in should get a longer letter, thanking them for their time and offering to get in touch to talk about whatever proposal you have for them at greater length.
E-mail is the most typical method of following up these days, but don’t be afraid to pick the phone up and make a call if it’s an important contact or opportunity. Many people place greater significance on phone contact than e-mail, and it will help you stand out from others who might be sending follow-ups of their own