Networking online, through social media channels, email, and LinkedIn, is something everyone I know does pretty well. After all, you can take all the time you like to compose your pitches and online networking comes without the stress and anxiety that often accompanies face-to-face interaction. But by no means should online networking be the only kind you do! There are certain things that can only get done when meeting and pitching someone in person.
I’m at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference this week in Austin, Texas, and it occurred to me that while I’ve gotten tons of amazing opportunities through my own networking, including television and radio appearances, this isn’t a subject that’s necessarily taught at business school. Many of you, I’m sure, are constantly attending conferences, events, and speaking engagements but if you struggle with getting up the nerve and pitching your idea then I’m going to try and help you by giving up my best tips. Here are the steps I would take before, during, and after an event to ensure I make the absolute most out of my face-to-face networking.
1. Know your subject
Before heading to an event or conference, get a copy of the program or print one out. Make sure you really study the entire program—you should know ahead of time what all of the panels are about and who all of the speakers are.
2. Make a hit list
With your knowledge of every nook and cranny of the program, you should be able to make a “hit list.” A hit list is your personalized list of everyone who will be speaking or attending the conference that you want to get in front of. Do you have an idea you’d like to run by them? An opportunity to present to them? Whatever it is, come up with more names than you’ll ever be able to meet (after all, some opportunities may pass for reasons outside of your control) and then prioritize them. This means making hard decisions and deciding on a #1, a #2, all the way down.
3. Have a calendar
Now that you’ve got your list of names, and you’ve prioritized them, match things up with the program and create a calendar for yourself of every panel and talk that you’ll be attending. Do this well before the event or conference begins so you can identify any conflicts in your schedule and resolve them before it’s too late.
Larger conferences almost always have apps, so check the app store on your devices and see if something is available. You can usually make your schedule right there in the app, which I would recommend since it can also then become a reference for you to quickly check bios or panel topics when you’re in a rush.
4. Follow your targets on social media
While you’re going to be meeting people in person, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t also be doing all the research you can and following them on social media. This is especially useful during an event or conference so that you can see if anything in their schedule changes. (Maybe a talk was rescheduled or they’ll be making an additional appearance outside of the convention center.) This way, you’ll be among the first to know.
This also lets you know what someone is thinking at a given time—maybe there’s a topic they’re talking about right now on Twitter that you could engage with and get your name in front of them before you meet in person. You may find out they’re interested in something you’re an expert in, so you’ll want to incorporate that into your pitch, which I discuss later in this article.
5. LinkedIn is your friend
Another thing you need to do before the conference even starts is put every name on your hit list into LinkedIn. You don’t need to connect with anyone, but what you do need to check is if you have any connections or acquaintances in common. Trust me, you’ll be shocked to discover that your network is bigger than you expected when you find out that a celebrity speaker at a conference is a friend of a friend—it happens!
If it turns out you do have these connections, shoot a message over to your connection and politely ask if they’d be comfortable introducing you to your target. You’re asking for a favor so be careful how you word your request—do a triple check that the message is professional before hitting “send.”
6. Pitch BEFORE the talk
So you’re at a conference and you’re sitting at a panel or a talk, and the speaker is someone you want to get in front of. Everything is perfect, right? WRONG.
If the speaker is well-known and well-liked (and let’s be honest, if they’re speaking to a crowd there’s probably a reason) then they are going to be mobbed the minute their talk is over — by both their fans and others like yourself who want to get an idea in front of them. You want to be remembered as an individual, not one of 20 faces who pitched in the first five minutes after the talk. Sometimes, well-known speakers sign books after events. While this can occasionally be an excellent time to network, more often than not you won’t find yourself with enough time to get in a good pitch while they sign your book.
What you want to do instead is get to their talk early (I usually like to arrive an extra 30 minutes ahead of time) and see if you can find them before the crowd gets to them. If you’ve followed my advice and checked out their social media and LinkedIn profiles, you should have a good idea of what your target looks like and you may be able to identify them in the seats or even outside the venue.
While this doesn’t always work, it really is the best time to catch someone and get the time and attention you need to properly pitch them.
7. Pitch perfect
The time has come. You’ve done your homework, arrived early, and identified your target. You’re walking up to them and suddenly you realize you don’t know what you’re going to say! Basically, you don’t have a pitch.
A pitch should be no more than 30 seconds and should do three things. First, you need to identify yourself, who you are and who you work with. Second, you need to explain exactly what it is you need or want from your target. Third, you want to demonstrate your value to him or her so that they remember you when you follow up.
But what do you actually say in that time? This is where things get tricky—I could write a whole article about the pitch!
The first thing is, have a visual element if you can. When I pitch I’m usually trying to get a TV show or a new hosting gig, so I make sure that I have either my laptop or my tablet computer on me at all times. On every device I own, especially my smartphone just in case, I have several videos to show, including my demo reel and prior television appearances. This way, my work can speak for itself and when I pitch I can say, “Hey, Sergey Brin, my name is Mario Armstrong and I talk about technology on television. Can I show you a quick video?” and hit play. Believe it or not, this actually happened to me—I recognized the Google founder on the street, took a minute to compose myself, and then I ran (literally, ran) up to him and gave him my pitch. The result? I have his personal email address and a promise to follow up with me on a variety of topics.
But what’s important is how simple my pitch was. Let’s take a look at that again:
“Hey Sergei Brin. My name is Mario Armstrong and I talk about technology on television. Can I show you a quick video?”
In just two sentences and under 10 seconds I let Mr. Brin know who I was, what I do, and was able to immediately hit play and show him my Television work. Now imagine if I hadn’t had my work on me at the time and I had no video to play. Would I have been able to pitch Mr. Brin? Could I have convinced him that I’m actually a contributor to the TODAY show, CNN and HLN? Maybe, but it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.
If you’re a graphic designer, have your art on every device you own and make sure you have one device on you at all times. If you’re a writer or blogger, use an app like Simplenote or Evernote and sign into an account that you only use to store writing samples. This way you can show someone your writing work right then and there.
Heck, I’ve even seen PowerPoint presentations used successfully as part of a pitch! Make it fun, engaging, and make sure that it adequately shows off exactly what you do.
8. Benefit everybody
As you’re working on your pitch, remember this one rule—the pitch HAS to be something that benefits the both of you.
Your target is someone who’s at a conference—they’re giving a talk, they may be famous or a minor celebrity, and they’re going to be bombarded with people asking them for help. Let me give you an example—someone comes to me and says, “Hey, Mario, I’d love to write for your website.” That’s a weak pitch, because I’m asking myself a ton of questions: Why should I help this person? How do they know if I need to hire a writer? Are they a writer? Why the heck would I need a new writer?
A better pitch presents itself as a solution to a specific problem I have. For example, what if the pitch was: “Hey, Mario, I see you haven’t written about Windows 8 on your site. Do you have an interest in getting some content about Microsoft’s new operating system?”
This is a pitch where afterwards I take their business card and put it in my left pocket because they’re someone I want to follow up with. Why? Because they identified a problem I have and offered a solution. That’s a successful pitch and it was successful because they had done their homework and phrased it perfectly. I’m saying to myself, “Why wouldn’t I want their help?” and that’s exactly the kind question you want your target asking themselves about you.
9. Practice, practice, practice
This should go without saying, but it’s easy to forget—practice your pitch, practice it over and over again. Test it out on anyone who will listen. Get advice from people you trust. Record your pitch with a video camera and play it back. Record just the audio, then speak more slowly and record it again. Is your voice clear? Can you force yourself to slow down? When you’re pitching, your heart will be racing so you need to know that you’re not going to rush through your pitch. The pitch also should sound natural, like it’s not a pitch at all, but just a conversation. Try different ways of saying it when you practice, listen to those recordings and then ask people if it sounds forced.
Afterwards, practice some more. At this point, you’ve invested too much time to blow it.
10. Shut up and listen
OK—so you’ve just delivered your perfect 30-second pitch and your target’s face lights up. What you need to do now is shut up. You’ve finished talking, so close your mouth and open your ears because you need to pay very close attention to what your target has to say.
Let them speak, and don’t interrupt your target, not even if they misunderstood your pitch or request. What you need to do is let them respond to everything you said and even give them time to think if they need it.
This rule is really about making sure you don’t oversell. I even do that sometimes, I get too excited and my pitch flies past the 30-second line and is being counted by the minute. You get stuck, you go over, and you can tell that your target is bored so you start panicking but you don’t stop talking. It happens to everyone, so you need to know ahead of time that your primary concern is to respect your target and respect their time. You can do this by giving yourself just 30 seconds and then letting them speak. By doing this you will demonstrate your value and become somebody your target recognizes the next time you meet.
11. Follow up
Then there’s the follow-up. You get all these business cards, but what kind of system do you have to put them in? Do they go in a Rolodex? Do you type everyone’s information into a Word document? Do you scan them yourself? Ship them off to Cloud Contacts and pay them to scan your cards for you? Whatever your system, you have to make sure that every single card is catalogued and that it goes somewhere you trust.
One thing I like to do is write notes on the backs of business cards because if I’m pitching lots of people, or being pitched myself, I often forget exactly what was said even a day later. If I don’t have a chance to organize my cards until after a conference, it will be too late to go back and remember those important details so I prefer to capture them right then and there.
Don’t wait forever—there are no magical waiting periods like there are in the dating game. Follow up during the conference if you can, while you’re still fresh in their minds. The follow-up doesn’t have to be as involved with the pitch, but is just as important because it sets the tone for how the work you’re doing will be conducted.
What are you waiting for? Get out there and get networking!
Mario Armstrong, Digital Lifestyle Expert, is an Emmy Award winning, tech commentator for the TODAY show, CNN, HLN and Fuse. An entrepreneur by nature, Mario made his passion his career by quitting his day job and founding Mario Armstrong Media. Follow Mario at @MarioArmstrong. AT&T has sponsored this blog post.