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Seven Survival Tips for Conferences

In exactly a week's time, I will be in Manila for the ASEAN 100 Leadership Forum. The annual event is a "flagship regional event" by Asia Inc Forum and it gathers "the most outstanding next wave of leaders from the region who will shape the future of ASEAN". Previous Forums were graced by leaders such as Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia (2003), Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore (2005) and President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia (2006). This year, President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines will be present and dialogue throughout the Forum will revolve around the theme "One ASEAN".

I have been to a number of conferences and forums across the last 10 years or so, and I have learnt a few things along the way. Here are seven conference survival tips I will surely be exercising in Manila at the ASEAN 100 Leadership Forum.

1. Take a Step Back

Strange things happen when you put hundreds of people in the same room at the same time. The energy levels rise, introverts become alpha sanguines, vision becomes telescopic and it is easy to get lost in a crowd. Take a step back, collect yourself and plan your next moves. Are there people in specific you want to meet? The keynote speaker perhaps? A famous author? Most likely there will be a group of other fans around him or her. If so, take a step back, put on a thick face, and make your move. You need to be very deliberate.

Don't get stuck in a moment


2. Mix it Up

There is a time and place for team-building and to keep within your immediate circles, and there is a time and place to go out of your comfort zone(s) to meet new people. Personally I love conferences, especially the one's overseas, because of the pool of 'new' people they come along with. Sit with someone you do not know. Have a meal with a stranger. Stand in queue with an unfamiliar face. Mix it up and get to know as many different people as possible. Your line of work may be the very key to unlocking the other person's business problem.

3. Business Cards

Have your business cards ready and within reach. First impressions count and the last thing you need is to be remembered as "that person who could not find his business cards". If you do not have any, go and get some. Where possible, make it somehow memorable.

Mine have been prepared in the image of Twitter


4. Sharpen Up your Pitch

"What do you do?" is probably the most asked question at conferences. Be ready to give a clear, concise and compelling introduction. Be on your toes too. Everyone is different and has a different approach. I once met an angel investor and his opening line to me was "So, are you looking to make money or spend money?" There was another time where I met a CEO and his opening line was "So, impress me." Think about it. You may be the first or the 50th person the other party is meeting. Either way, sharpen up your initial pitch and make it count.

5. Be (Hardware) Ready

If you are anything like me, you are the kind of conference-goer who jots down notes, tweets, blogs, takes photographs and tries to think of a good question to ask during the question and answer session ALL at the same time while an address is being delivered. If you are, it helps to have great equipment; a lightning quick laptop with awesome battery reserves, agile applications on your mobile devices, the right camera, etc. Opportunities come and go quickly at conferences. The last thing you need is to be slowed down (or in my case as shown below, let down) by the wrong hardware.

My 'best' photograph of the 67th US Secretary of State from the recent RES 2011 in Bali


6. Go Deep, not Wide

At the end of the day, there are only so many new people you can meet at a conference. You do not need to meet everyone. You do not have to give away all of your 200 newly printed business cards. Instead of going for sheer volume, consider going for depth instead. Get to know a select bunch of people really well. Go out for post-conference bonding sessions with them. If people like you, they will work with and for you. Period.

7. Pair Up

Before a networking session, if you are able, pair up with someone you have built rapport with. Make an agreement to watch each other's back. If your memory is foggy, your partner can remind you of the names and vocations of people around you. Your partner can help lubricate an introduction by speaking highly of your accomplishments. Your partner can recommend you to someone new from his or her circles. Your partner can help take photographs for you. Pair up and look after each other.

Another photograph from RES 2011. That's Eric Schmidt in the middle...the executive chairman of Google. If only I had paired up, I would have been standing next to him in this photograph.


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