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It’s time for a quick primer on the proper way to interact at conferences and other business events. Since I just came back from one of those types of events, this is on top of mind for me.

What’s surprising is how few people get it right and move a conversation towards their business goals. The rest let ego and sloppiness get in the way, usually leaving people on both sides of the conversation frustrated. I’m here to help.

I get approached a lot at technology events (usually entrepreneurs), and I also approach others (usually about a story I’m working on).

A typical frustrating interaction for me: I am being hit on all sides by people saying hello, or trying to pitch me, or whatever. A new person pops up in front of me. They look vaguely familiar. A hand is thrust towards me and they say “hey Mike!”

At this point all I’m thinking about is damage control. I frantically try to remember if I’ve met him/her before. Because if I say “nice to meet you” and I’ve met them before, I usually get a “yeah well we met three months ago, i can’t believe you don’t remember” back with a negative tone. If I’m not sure, and usually I’m not, I say “nice to see you.” It’s a trick I’ve learned that sort of works in any situation. Any anyway, I’m also already annoyed that the person put me in an awkward situation.

Then the person jumps right into whatever it is they want. Often its to step aside for a pitch. Which puts me in bad situation no. 2, because I probably can’t step aside at just that moment. And the middle of an event is certainly not the time to expect me to pay attention to whatever you’re pitching. And since you deserve that attention, why start things off in such a crazy way?

Remember your ultimate business goal. It isn’t to have me listen to a pitch. It’s something more. Like a story on TechCrunch about your startup, or an introduction to someone who can help your project. If you keep the ultimate goal in mind, you won’t screw up by forcing intermediate goals that don’t really help you, and just frustrate the listener.

So here are my tips for making the most of these interactions:

  1. Never underestimate the power of an introduction. A mutual friend who introduces you by email or in person is far more effective than a cold self-introduction at a crowded event. Approaching someone randomly should be your last option.
  2. Don’t approach someone when they are clearly in the middle of something. If I’m throwing a conference, there likely isn’t any time at all that is appropriate to approach me. But there are 2,000 other people there you can hit up who aren’t as busy as I am at that time. Hit me up at the event that I’m attending but not running.
  3. Don’t approach someone when they are in the middle of a mob trying to get their attention. This is usually after a speaker has just left a stage, and everyone hits them at once. If you must grab them then because you have no other way of meeting them, make it very, very quick and aim for nothing more than their business card so you can email them later.
  4. If you get someone’s business card, never call them. That mobile phone number isn’t for you, the person who just met them. A random call to their cell phone is never welcome. Send an email.
  5. When you approach someone, don’t assume they know you even if they do. You see them across the room, note them, approach them and say hello. You’ve had a few moments to think about it, but all they see is a face in front of them, a thrust out hand and a “hello!” It’s not reasonable for them to decide if they know you, remember your name and where you work in a half-moment.

    Instead, say “Hey Bob, It’s Mike from TechCrunch, good to see you again” slowly and clearly. You’ve just told them your name, where you work, and the fact that you’ve previously met. Trust me, they are thankful for all that information, and everything will go smoothly from there.

  6. If you forget to tell them who you are, don’t get offended if they don’t know. There will likely be a few sentences of very unspecific conversation as they try to remember any detail about you, or even if they’ve met you before. If they start off with “how are you?” or “what do you think about the event?” then things are going badly. They should be asking “how’d that financing with Sequoia go?” or something much more specific.
  7. If you’ve blown it to this point, for the love of God fix it. Drop in something like “yeah, since I met you at the whatever event we’ve been rocking at TechCrunch. We finally launched that new blog on bicycles.” Bam, you’ve saved the situation. Notice how much better the conversation goes from there.
  8. Look for body language. If you pay attention you can tell how engaged they are. If they aren’t engaged (looking away, never talking, etc.) don’t try too hard to get them to focus. Instead, move on to what you want. Get their card, see if a meeting or a call is possible and ask for the best way to make that happen. Some people think the more time they spend with a person the more likely they’ll get what they want. In reality, it’s the opposite. Don’t take time just because they are too polite to end the conversation.

Some of the most well known people I know never assume people they talk to know who they are. Sequoia Capital partner Roelof Botha, for example, introduces himself to me every time I see him, and asks if now is a good time to talk. I’ve known him since 2006, and it’s far from necessary. But I always appreciate how polite he is.

Want to be like Roelof someday? A good start is basic business etiquette. Just because someone can’t register your face, name and workplace in less than the second it takes for you to say hello to them doesn’t mean they don’t want to help you out. Just help to avoid that awkward moment by giving them all the information they need. And then watch body language for your cue to wrap things up.

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