The Beginner’s Guide To Conference Game: How To Meet Speakers

It’s 10:26 AM and Leah Busque, Former Founder of TaskRabbit, is being aggressively bombarded by aspiring entrepreneurs and bloggers at a popular Silicon Valley conference.

“Leah, hi! I’m Scott and I’m building my first commerce platform. Would you mind if I ask you a couple questions or get your email so I can send them to you?”

A young female attendee screens that person out and starts talking like her life depends on it, “Leah, hi loved listening to your Q&A panel!  I’m an entrepreneur and I don’t know if I should focus on scaling or build my user base in Boulder first. What would you do? Any guidance really helps!”

Leah pauses and a young Berkeley undergraduate interprets this as a chance to pounce (he’s been dying to ask a question so why not ask now?). “Leah, I’m a podcaster and always looking for guest speakers, would you be interested in coming on the show?”

To complicate the situation, conference organizers are telling Leah and her entourage they need to vacate the room and exit to the hallway so they can make room for the next speaker. Leah looked like a gazelle being preyed on by famished lions. This happens with every speaker at a conference.

From the entrepreneurs perspective, you might have traveled a long distance and THIS is your chance to talk to successful founders, thought leaders, and movers. I get it. One connection could share the answer to your most pressing question, provide funding, or become a valuable advisor.

It’s tempting to join the pack; making a connection is on everyone’s mind. However, an aggressive approach might not be the best option.

I recently went to Startup Grind, a popular entrepreneurial conference in Redwood City, California, where the likes of Reid Hoffman (LinkedIn), Cal Henderson (Slack), James Park (FitBit), and Daniel Pink (NY Times Bestseller Drive) spoke and shared incredible gems of knowledge with the attendees.

Throughout the conference, I saw legions of ambitious people circling the presenters to pitch their company, get funding, or “ask one question” all at the same time. It was like watching seven men approach the same woman and sequentially say, “Hi, I’m ____. Would you like to go home with me tonight?” This is horrible behavior; it comes off as extremely desperate and doesn’t work.

I want to help you avoid bad approaches and prevent unprofessional “conference game” behavior. Here are a few helpful steps from my quintessential Beginner’s Guide To Conference Game to make effective, long-standing connections. My mission is to help set you up for success which could potentially lead to a mentorship, startup advisor or a VC funding opportunity.

First, let’s start with your mindset using three guiding principles to put you in the right head space.

Mindset Tip #1: Do The Opposite of The Majority

If you visualize the scene I described above you’ll understand that it might be best to do the complete opposite of everyone else. I encourage you to pause and ask yourself, “How else could I approach AND have a conversation with this person?”

Tactics to consider:
• Purchase the “platinum ticket” for back stage or private event access to meet speakers away from larger crowds
• Sit in the first row so you are visible to the speaker
• Engage in small banter before the speaker goes on stage (be careful with this and read them first; they might be preparing for their talk and want privacy)
• Provide value or entice them before asking for anything in return (ex. “I’m working on something that you might find valuable”)

Mindset Tip #2: Know Who You’re Speaking With

In Dale Carnegie’s How To Win Friends & Influence People, we hear the story of Teddy Roosevelt who spent hours learning about aviation before a famous pilot came to visit him as a way to ensure they would have an engaging conversation.

In short, Roosevelt knew to speak of the other person’s interests. The same idea applies to elite entrepreneurs: do plenty of research beforehand and learn the following:

• Who they are
• What’s important to them
• Who they follow (i.e. Twitter)
• Their full professional background
• The industries they’re involved in
• The root & heritage of their name

In essence, the more you learn about them, the more details you’ll know for carrying a natural flowing conversation.

Mindset Tip #3: Be Calm, Cool, and Collected

Most attendees who approach a presenter come off as aggressive and desperate which is a lethal cocktail to scare anyone away.  Hungry and needy is unattractive so, be cool.

Perhaps you really admire the speaker, have read all of their books, tweets, and TED talks. Amazing, but there is a chance everyone else in attendance has too. I research in advance and try to find as many commonalities as I can. For example, we’re both:

• Hungry and ambitious
• Entrepreneurs
• Creators
• Very curious and enjoy learning
• Passionate about emerging tech or (insert industry)
• Have the same name or heritage (maybe)
• Admire the same innovators and thought leaders (perhaps)

A Mock Scenario

Let’s pretend you’re attending SXSW and sitting in the front row (the platinum ticket was a little too rich for your blood) to see Brian Chesky (CEO of Airbnb) speak. You’ve done plenty of research and have mentally listed a handful of things you share in common.

Now what?  Here are 5 simple steps:

Step 1: Ask Questions During The Speaking Session

If you don’t have a chance to approach before they speak, you still have good odds of being the first to catch them when they finish their session. Asking quality questions during their session is a good way to get some touch points (and even future conversation starters). Prepare a couple of questions in advance.

Step 2: Have a Strong Opener

The majority of people talk a lot about themselves and then go straight for “the ask.” Overall, this is an ineffective approach since you’re basically a stranger asking for a big favor. Instead, have a compelling opener to get their attention; reel them in later.

Your opener could be a question (How do you think Blockchain technology will affect your industry?), a unique opinion you have on a topic relevant to their industry (I think all brick & mortar stores will be extinct by 2020), or a personable compliment (I’ve read all of your blog posts and have always been inspired at how you always tie it back to customer obsession). In turn, you’ll engage them rather than talk at them.

Step 3: Wordsmith Your 15-second Pitch

Prepare a succinct, 15-second pitch that tells a simple but interesting story about yourself, what you do, and why you do it. You have very little time; avoid going on any tangents, complaining, or speaking with any  “ums” or “likes.” Practice your pitch on someone who is brutally honest with you (a mentor, sibling, or frenemy).

Step 4: Have Positive Body Language

Great body language can go a very long way. If you can, shake their hand or make some form of physical contact, if appropriate (touching increases our sense of connectivity and has bonding benefits). Be calm & relaxed (it’s contagious), have soft but direct eye contact (tip: note what their eye color is), and last, keep your arms open and forearms faced out (not crossed, fidgety, or hands in your pockets).

Practice making this a habit and you’ll be amazed at how often people will reciprocate in giving you their full attention in return.

Step 5: Don’t Ask for Anything In Return

After your well-placed opener and 15-second pitch, you’ve hopefully been able to shoot the breeze and build a connection. Once again, the majority have approached the speaker with “a want” in mind; do the opposite and don’t ask for anything.

Instead, say something genuine about how great it was talking with them and how it’d be great to stay in touch. Pull out your business card (always have one on deck) and hand it to them.

At this point, they’ll want to reciprocate with their contact info. In case they don’t, you should ask, “Is email the best way to stay in touch?” and get their email!

Wait 4 weeks to send a follow-up email (most have emailed them within 2 weeks). Mention something unique from your conversation (ex: an inside joke, a question you asked, discuss the meaning of their name, etc.) or just say “hey”.

Always include details in your signature including your online presence and a hyperlink to your website. Strangely enough, many don’t take advantage of this simple, free, marketing opportunity.

Continue to nurture this connection while remembering to always provide value first before asking for anything. You want to build a relationship and the power of reciprocity is huge. Later on when you have a pressing question, they’ll likely be more than happy to provide their thoughts.

Do the above at every conference and event you attend. As Eben Pagan says, perfect practice makes perfect. You’ll optimize your networking experience while gaining skills to effectively approach and connect with presenters.

You’ll also never find yourself competing amongst a swarm of hungry, desperate entrepreneurs again. Instead, you’ll be building world-class connections that’ll rocket your startup to a new stratosphere of success.

~JK

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