by Dave Menzies
I’ve been to many conferences and tradeshows over the years, in all different parts of the country dealing with a wide variety of industries and technologies. These are important opportunities for ongoing education and outstanding venues for business development. During my most recent visit to such an event there were numerous opportunities to network. Some involved your basic hallway interactions, others at exhibit booths, still more at tables or in the next chair over at panel discussions and lectures. It was interesting to watch how people connected, and still more interesting to watch missed opportunities. The common thread in both cases was the ability of people to master the art of interpersonal communication.
I was a communication major in college. That’s communication with an “n” and not communications with an “s” just to be clear. It’s an important distinction, since in my case I studied as much about the way individuals communicate with each other on an interpersonal level as much as I studied about various journalism and public relations techniques. I graduated in 1989, but all these years later I’m still fascinated by the relevance of what I was taught, especially in an age of mobile electronic communication.
The recent conference I attended was a showcase for the right and wrong way to approach interpersonal communication. As with most conferences and tradeshows, this event was incredibly substantive with a plethora of smart, well-connected industry veterans in addition to innovators with up-and-coming technologies and promising young startups. I noticed some of the obvious tradeshow veterans walking the hallways and exhibit rooms with their heads up, smiles on their faces, and right hands free, ready for a welcoming handshake. A surprisingly high number of the younger attendees (young to me is under 30) were almost constantly looking at their smartphones, many times while walking. In a couple of cases, I saw some in the younger crowd walk right by well-known, influential veterans who were standing by themselves, missing a prime opportunity to make inroads into a constantly evolving, competitive marketplace.
I popped into one presentation and found a seat, introducing myself to the man already seated next to me, exchanging business cards and pleasantries. A woman came and sat in front of us, turning around and doing the same thing to both me and my neighbor. As it turns out, the woman was with a company I ended-up writing about for my tech publication Startup TechWire, while the man was a terrific resource for some of my PR clients. A couple minutes later, a young 20-something man came and sat next to me, looking at his mobile device as he dumped his bag at his feet and sat down, then proceeded to scroll through some article or email or something for the next five minutes as people continued filing in. I turned my head as he sat down, smiled, and patiently waited for him to look up or otherwise acknowledge me, the people in front of him, or the person who sat down next to him. Nothing. I said hello, introduced myself, and the young man simply smiled and looked back down at his phone. The presentation started, and the young man continued to read his phone. I can’t say how often he looked up, as I was engaged with the talk going on, but I can say that when we got up to leave he was still on his device.
To recap this particular instance, I wrote an article about that woman’s company, giving her some free publicity and providing my Startup TechWire readers with interesting insight on an up-and-coming company, and the man I met actually got some business out of my PR clients I referred him to. Beyond that, perhaps both of their companies may need some PR help from me in the future. But the young man glued to his phone? Who knows what venture capitalist, vendor resource, mentor, or potential partner he missed by simply not engaging the people around him.
Individuals walking the hallways and sitting in on lectures weren’t the only ones hitting home runs and striking out with interpersonal communication. People seated at sponsor booths and exhibit halls reflected both the good and the bad. As I walked through the exhibits, there were many people either standing at their table or in front of it, greeting visitors, interacting, making interpersonal connections. For my part, these were the people I was interacting with, and many were featured in a series of follow-up Startup TechWire articles. A smaller proportion of the people manning these tables of startups, but still a noticeable amount, were sitting in chairs, fiddling with their smartphones and laptops as potential customers, investors, and news media strolled by. In one instance, I approached a company that looked interesting, and the young lady at the table was on her mobile device. I presented a greeting, and she responded by holding up her hand with index finger extended as she continued reading her phone. As I stood there waiting, an industry veteran who I knew approached me and engaged me in conversation, and I ended-up talking with him and not the woman at the table.
This same type of scenario was present at a handful of sponsor tables which is bad news for sponsors who were paying people to try and drum-up business at this captured market of life science movers and shakers.
According to 2015 numbers from the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of American adults now own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35 percent in the spring of 2011. No doubt, these devices are helping business people stay connected with each other and customers, but they are also having negative impacts on interpersonal communication.
The long and short of it is, when you are paying money to participate in a major tradeshow or conference, and are looking to make connections with potential stakeholders, turn off your mobile device or commit to checking it at the top and bottom of each hour, preferably off to the side or otherwise out of the main flow of foot traffic.
The news and information you’ll miss on your screen will pale in comparison to the opportunities you’ll gain from the people you’re there to meet.
– Dave Menzies is an award-winning PR coach, consultant and trainer. An advocate for America’s startup community, he provides group training and individual mentoring opportunities including PR101, PR201, and PR301 online courses designed for bootstrapping entrepreneurs. For more info give Dave a call at (910) 899-8935 or shoot him an email at email@example.com.