16-Sep-2006

Seminar story

As things go, bang after my last entry on networking at seminars, I got tossed headlong into a seminar. If you were to draw a map marking off ‘Conversational skills’ on the Y-axis and ‘Time of the week’ on the X-axis, you will notice a major dip in my personal map around Saturday mornings. Usually I am at my impolite best, trying to get over the fact that I up early on a Saturday for some work related thing and I was up late night on a Friday.

So this morning I trudged in slowly at 9 a.m. into the seminar hall to find that in a room of the sixty possible seating places, my three colleagues had chosen four consecutive chairs in the first row. The fact that they had arrived early and had voluntarily chosen these seats did not help. This immediately killed all plans I had of SMSing my friends throughout.

The first thing that happens in most of these conferences is a bladder alert fifteen minutes into the programme. For some reason organizers believe that people get their money’s worth only if they are subject to air conditioning that makes them realise what afterlife is going to be when they are tucked away in a morgue. Within the first hour you know most people are fidgeting. Coffee break is welcomed by all at this point.

At the coffee break I realised I already knew someone over there. My colleague and I agreed unspoken that latching on to this guy would be the best idea to avoid feeling guilty about not being in active networking mode. We sidled up and did the polite conversation-over-coffee thing when our acquaintance’s friend steered a seemingly innocent question into a terribly sad story about his personal life. We had asked him if he had been with this company for long and he replied in the affirmative. And added that except for the one year break he took to look after his then ailing (and now dead) father. I am a considerate person and usually feel quite sorry when I hear about personal tragedies. However I have never figured out how to handle it when strangers start pouring out their tales of woe – not in a manner of seeking comfort from another human being but for just filling up awkward pauses.

I suddenly realised that I had not actually still ‘networked’ with anyone. So promptly turning to the stranger nearest to me, I smiled brilliantly, introduced myself and gave my card. He did the same and then apologized and pointed out that as the next speaker he would have to rush to the stage for setting up his power point slides. So much for accurate spotting of potential targets.

After an hour more, the last speaker came on stage. Much as it is unfair to be judgmental about people based on their looks, my colleague and myself agreed that clearly he spent a lot of time in deep and intense personal experiences with alcohol. This had not just added bags to his eyes and jowls to his jaw but also an ‘I-could-not-care-less’ aspect to his personality. 45 minutes into his speech, he had criticized a range of things from newspapers to the finance minister. His worried co-speakers, seeing no end to his speech and a fast approaching lunch hour gestured subtly to him that he was running out of time. Our man however was in no mood for subtle gestures. He interrupted his own speech to ask if it was time and when the answer was affirmative, stopped in mid sentence, thanked the audience and sat down.

At least since it was a half-day seminar, there was nothing else to do but wolf down some lunch and leave. And that is just what I did.

If anyone is wondering where exactly did I use the skills I had pontificated about the previous time you must realise the greatest networker is one who knows when the audience is not really in his target list and conserves his energy. Ok, that bit was complete rot, but Saturdays…No way.

11-Sep-2006

5 Tips on networking at seminars

The other day one of my friends called me up in a bit of panic. She was attending a seminar on the Plastics Industry in India as a part of her new job. She was thoroughly enjoying dozing through the day in her chair at the back. But she was dreading lunch hour when she was supposed to ‘network’ with people, the main purpose of her having attended the conference. Having worked in a long series of jobs not involving such public networking, she was, understandably, panicking.

Having spent more than six years in client facing roles, I have managed to pick up quite a few tips on attending such conferences and am glad to be able to share it with all my friends who may be stuck in seminars on the Plastics Industry in India in the future.
1. Be there. The main purpose of a seminar is to network and every veteran knows this. Come lunch hour, and before you can say ‘Shall we have lunch?’ you will see the cards flying thick and fast. To make use of this, all you need to do is look confident and position yourself in the busiest spot in the area (Not the food table. People are usually focused and aggressive around there). As my friend discovered, ‘they are dropping cards like confetti’

2. Time it. The best time to network is the pre-conference cocktail. People are at a loose end because the event has not yet started and if you just spend your time standing alone nursing a drink you will look like an alcoholic. On the other hand if you stand with someone else who is also nursing a drink, you will look like an industry professional. The same holds true for the pre-conference coffee in case of day-time seminars

3. Circulate. This is not as tough as it sounds. Just listen to one of the world’s silliest jokes from a perfect stranger trying to make polite conversation, and your survival instincts will automatically kick in and you make a move.

4. Catch them alone. Every conference will have at least three or four people who have turned up by themselves in a genuine effort to follow the trends in the Plastics Industry and are uncomfortable with the socializing part. Yet secretly, in order not to be branded an alcoholic (refer point 2) or a gourmand (modification of point 2), they would like someone to talk to. You may or may not find them useful in the course of your professional life but at that point in time when your boss turns around to check on how you are doing, instead of looking like a lost kid you can confidently give that quick smile that says ‘Later. I am busy talking to this guy who will single handedly give us USD 100 M of future business’

5. Stupid talk is OK. Most people are intimidated by the fact that when they actually do enter into a conversation with a stranger they may reveal the fact that they are not Nobel-prize material. Veterans will tell you that rarely do the conversations go beyond the score of the cricket match going on currently or the general inefficiency of the organiser in managing time. Then someone will crack a bad joke and everyone goes ‘har har har’ and exchanges cards and you move on (Point 3 above)

If nothing works and it is becoming obvious that the room has conspired to make you stand out like a miserable and boring loser then it is time to use your cell phone. Whip out your cell phone and have a brisk, solemn-looking conversation on it that signals to people around you that you are checking the London markets to see how freight prices have moved and whether it is time to hedge. You may not have collected visiting cards at the end of it but at least you look like you are too busy managing your current life to be bothered with getting to know a pathetic bunch of half-wits who clearly have no other business other than cracking jokes on cricket. Then put off phone with a sweeping click, smile smugly and exit into the bathroom where you can burst into tears undisturbed.