How to Break the Ice

March 1, 2023
Expert tips and strategies to get the most out of conference networking events. 

In Greek mythology, the hydra was a nine-headed snake monster that, seemingly, could not be killed. As soon as one of its heads was cut off, two more would take that one’s place. The more someone struggled against it, the more overwhelming and daunting the task of facing it would become.  

In many ways, attending industry trade shows and conferences can at first seem like attempting to tame the hydra. Industry events are vital to networking and maximizing your business opportunities but figuring out which to go to and how to make the most of your time there can get overwhelming quickly. For every one event you go to, it always seems another two pop up on your calendar. 

Much like how Hercules was able to defeat the hydra by proactively cauterizing each head as he removed it, though, doing a little advanced research and coming up with a plan can make the herculean task of navigating conferences much more manageable. 

“You have to have a plan,” DSB Leadership Group CEO David Brown says. “A conference cannot be deemed successful if you don’t walk away having achieved your stated goals.” 

Brown has four tips he shares that, if executed, will help slay the proverbial conference hydra and make sure your next event is a success. 

Know Before You Go 

It may seem very simple at first, but Brown says planning for your time at any event is essential.  

Most conferences nowadays have a designated website that will act as a one-stop shop for everything related to the event. Find the agenda and plan the time that you’ll be there. Even a basic outline of the events you want to go to every day can help you more efficiently navigate the conference. 

“If you don’t know what the agenda is and who’s going to be there, you’re not going to maximize your time,” Brown says. 

See if there are a couple of sessions that are a high priority for you and your shop or if there are one or two people you want to meet. Brown says this is also a great time to leverage your existing network. Do you know someone who knows that speaker or another attendee you want to meet? That’s a great way to strike up a conversation. 

“Don’t be afraid to name-drop,” Brown says. 

Josh Mullins, COO of Honest Wrenches in Ankeny, Iowa, says he compiles a list of questions, things he’s struggling with and people he wants to meet for every event he goes to. 

“I’m looking to learn one thing I didn’t know or make one connection I didn’t have before,” Mullins says.  

Mullins asked a question about building a leadership team, something he says he had no idea how to do, to some other attendees at a conference he was at last year. That led to a “crazy conversation” and some invaluable insight into assembling the team Mullins now has. 

Be Confident and Inquisitive 

The automotive repair conference circle is a fairly small world—many speakers, vendors and other big names in the industry are regulars at most big-time conferences. That can make breaking onto the scene and attending your first conference more nerve-wracking. Brown says planning can help eliminate some of those first-time-attendee jitters.  

“Nine times out of 10, nobody’s going to know that you’re nervous except for you,” he says. “If you’re confident, others are going to want to know who you are and what you do.” 

Brown says having your own “elevator pitch” is an absolute must when going to any event. Prepare how you’re going to introduce yourself, your company and what you specialize in beforehand. 

“If you can’t say your elevator pitch in 30 seconds or less, you’re going to push people away,” he says. 

Entering a conference with the right mindset is also effective at reducing anxiety at events. If you go into an event confidently and with an inquisitive attitude, it becomes easier to connect with other attendees who are there to learn, grow and make connections. 

“We’re all people, we all have the same fears,” Mullins says. “Just go in there and realize that they have the same issues and questions you have.” 

Brown says practicing good body language—arms not crossed, smiling, etc.—can help you present yourself as confident and welcoming, making it easier for people to approach you.  

Give Before You Receive 

Conferences are two-way streets. Chances are that you’ve found a solution to a problem that someone else is dealing with. Brown says you have to acknowledge and embrace the idea of sharing as much as you can. 

“If you go there with a ‘gimme gimme’ mindset, it is so off-putting … for so many professionals who are there to gain as much as you are,” he says. “When you say, ‘give me,’ it feels like you’re not going to reciprocate. Go with the mindset of giving.” 

Brown encourages looking for a “win-win situation.” Find situations to discuss mutual problems and solutions. It gives other people an opportunity to pause and ask you questions, which keeps the door to conversation open. 

Mullins says he understands that it might be uncomfortable at first sharing details about your processes or procedures with other people, but in the end sharing knowledge is beneficial for the industry as a whole.  

“We all have cars to fix. I don’t look at other shops as my competitors,” Mullins says. “If we can all operate and work together in unison, our lives are going to be easier and we’re going to do a better job of fixing people’s cars.” 

Brown says it can be helpful to think about sharing and gathering information at conferences like a bank account. 

“You have to make more deposits to shore it up before you make any withdrawals,” he says.  

Always Follow Up, and Follow Up Again 

Conferences are exhausting, but Brown says it’s important to not let that natural let-down after an event pause the momentum gained while you were there. 

“The biggest mistake I see people make is not following up. If I give someone my card, I expect to hear from them,” he says. “You have to follow up, or that very exciting moment when you first meet goes down the drain.” 

It’s important to remember that everyone is going to feel the drain following an event, too, and that they’ll need to catch up on work that was missed while they were gone. Brown says you should give them some time before reaching out. 

“Don’t follow up the next day—give them some time to get back,” he says. “Wait no more than one week after you meet them and try to plan a follow-up for the following week.” 

Actively Engage, Slay the Hydra 

Regardless of what kind it is, Mullins says it’s critical to let yourself and your team attend conferences and to actively engage in the opportunities provided.  

“The worst thing you can do is go in and just wander around. Trade shows and events are so powerful,” Mullins says. “If you’re not letting your team be a part of these events, you’re losing out. Anytime my team wants to go, I let them go. We’re only as good as our teams.”  

Brown says you won’t be able to remember a good deal of what you hear at a days-long conference but going into an event with confidence and following his tips will ensure you slay the hydra before it gets too overwhelming and make sure you come away with something amazing. 

“You will hold on to that one conversation, that one connection,” Brown says. “Who knows? You might meet a friend for life.” 

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