Last November I wrote a post entitled “Best and Worst Business Pickup Lines” where I outlined many of the techniques I and others use to break the ice in a business networking environment. In conversation about that article, one reader asked specifically about techniques for picking up speakers and presenters.
It was an excellent question, and required revisiting the subject since the advice in the previous article wasn’t necessarily appropriate when approaching an industry VIP.
My work at Spark Media Solutions requires me to attend a lot of conferences, approach speakers, and ask them for an interview. What follows is advice from my own experience, and what I’ve witnessed others do while I waited to conduct my interviews.
Before you decide to approach a conference speaker or industry VIP, ask yourself, “What do I really want from this VIP, or better, what can I do for this VIP?” Your desire for meeting the VIP could be as simple as asking to get a photo with them. In such a case, you can probably ask that question right out of the gate. If it’s anything more advanced than that, then don’t make that desire your opening line, but rather think about what opening engagement you could make to get them to appreciate having met you. Here’s how to do just that.
Sit in the front row
If the presenter is an industry rock star and you know they’re going to be flooded immediately after the presentation, sit in the front row as close to the podium as possible so you can be the very first person to speak to them when their presentation is over.
Be patient and wait
Alternatively, if you know the line isn’t going to be that bad, you have the time, and they’re not going to be flying out of the hall minutes after their presentation, then just sit back and let everyone else have their moment. When everyone has passed and the presenter is about to walk out, casually walk up and make your introduction.
An industry friend of mine Chris Yeh (@chrisyeh) once said to me, “You can never go wrong complimenting someone.” That’s a universal truth. It’s always a good idea to compliment the presenter, but be specific about it. Don’t just say, “That was a great presentation,” but rather mention a specific point they made and explain why you think it’s so valuable.
Let them know you’re a fan
If you truly are a fan and read their blog, follow them on Twitter, and/or listen to their podcast, let them know that. Content producers love to meet the people who are their regular readers/listeners.
Reference their previous work
Even if you haven’t read anything the presenter has done before, look them up during their presentation and check out some of their previous articles, videos, or other content. When you get your meeting, reference that previous work and say that’s what brought you to their presentation today.
Ask a follow up question
Rarely do the presenters get to all the questions the audience asks. Don’t bother asking your question publicly. Reserve it for a private conversation.
When asking for their card, let them know how and why you’re going to follow up
Too often I see people ask a presenter, “Can I get your card,” and then don’t explain what they’re going to do with it. Instead, say, “Can I get your card so I can follow up with…”
Explain what you’re going to do for them and why
At the beginning I suggested you ask yourself, “What can I do for this VIP?” If you go out of your way to help the presenter, they will remember and appreciate the gesture. Most importantly, they will remember you.
Write something about the presentation
Let them know that you really enjoyed their presentation and that you’re going to write a blog post about it. Follow up with, “I’m going to write a blog post about your presentation. Where can I email you a link to it when it’s finished?” Often I see people say, “I tweeted during your presentation.” That’s nice, but I’m sorry that doesn’t hold nearly as much weight as saying I’m blogging about you. Write a blog post, not a tweet.
If you are going to write something about them, then use that time to actually interview them and get some content that will be exclusive to your piece. That way it will be of interest to people who saw the presentation, and it will be unique to anyone else’s article about the presentation. For more, read 30 Tips on How to Interview Like a Journalist and 5 Interview Questions that Always Return Great Answers.
Wear something really flashy
This technique is not for everybody, but if you can wear one thing that’s a little outrageous, do it. It helps your chances of being memorable. For example, I remember seeing a guy at a conference wearing pink and green paisley pants. I could not forget him. If you’re not willing to go that far, a silly or super bright tie can usually do the trick.
You must follow up
You may have had a fantastic engagement, and did an excellent job breaking the ice. But if you don’t follow up, it’s like you never met them. Trust me, they won’t have remembered you unless you follow up. Mention what you said in the meeting (e.g. “I’m the one who asked you the question about…” or “I said I was going to write a post about your presentation and here it is.”). Or, if you wore something flashy, remind them of what you wore (e.g. “I was the woman with the giant feather in her hair.”).
Connect on social networks
While pinging them via email is good, you’ll probably need to rely on social media’s “ambient intimacy” to maintain a connection with the presenter. When you follow up with them, let them know that you’ll reach out and connect with them via LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and/or any other industry appropriate social network.
Mention “the elephant in the room”
There’s always one thing about a conference that everyone is talking about under their breath or they’re whispering to each other. It’s often the quality of the food, the lousy panel discussions, or the crappy WiFi. If it’s in your nature to be a little sarcastic, and you think it’s appropriate, try opening with an “elephant in the room” comment. This should not be handled lightly because if you slam a crappy panel discussion, it may just come off as mean. But people who are jovial about mentioning the obvious, that nobody else is talking about, are often appreciated for their brutal honesty.
Introduce yourself moments before the presentation
I’m always surprised that people don’t take advantage of this prime time to engage with a conference presenter. Minutes before a presentation or panel discussion, the speakers are usually getting miked up or are setting up their computer. Many think, “Oh, I shouldn’t disturb them.” Quite the opposite. Unless they look frantic dealing with a technical issue, introduce yourself. It’s often a great time to let them know you’re a fan and that you came to their presentation because of something you previously read of theirs. Afterwards, they’ll be eager to talk to you because they’ll want to know if their presentation lived up to your expectations.
Casually stalk them
Here’s another sensitive technique that must be handled with care. If the presenter will be disappearing behind a curtain into a presenter’s prep area once they’re done, you need to find where the exit is and hang outside, but casually. You don’t want to snipe them the moment they walk out of the door. Rather, you want to make it look like you naturally ran into them. You can make it look like a normal interaction and not a weird stalking moment like Jerry did with George on “Seinfeld” when he tried to get a date with a girl at a law office.
Follow up again
While a single follow up is key, it may not be enough. It’s highly likely even if you did have a positive engagement in person, they might not respond. Sadly, it’s a true reality that most people don’t respond to follow up emails from conferences. Don’t rely on your memory remind you. Put a reminder in your CRM (customer relationship management) system.
Ask if they have dinner plans
You may think this is a crazy bold move, but it’s not. Chances are if their presentation is at the beginning of the day, they don’t have dinner plans. If you made a positive engagement and you’re getting the sense they like talking with you, ask if they’re available for dinner that night. The worst thing they could say is no, but if they don’t, and they enjoy talking with you, don’t be surprised if they say yes.
Offer them a ride
If when you run into them they’re bolting out the door, ask them where they’re going, and offer to give them a ride or pay for the cab and go with them. If you’re desperate to talk with them, that ride to that destination will be ideal for you to have that really deep engagement you were hoping for.
CONCLUSION: Avoid approaching them right after the presentation
While much of the advice is about approaching a presenter just after their presentation, it’s best to avoid looking like one of the cattle. Instead, it’s best to catch them later, at lunch, or in another less time sensitive environment (e.g. “Could you all please move? The next presentation is starting in five minutes.”). Whatever technique you do choose, whether it’s here or something else of your choosing, please don’t launch into a pitch for your business as your opening line. Far too often that’s exactly what I see people do when they engage with a presenter. You wouldn’t like someone to do that to you, so don’t do it to them.
You want to create a positive engagement that makes them want to hear from you again.
Creative Commons photo attribution for all photos to E2 Conference.