Tag Archive | rapport

Vendors and hawkers

About two or three times a month, I meet someone who wishes to leverage my contacts to sell something. I know this is far fewer than many in the social media government circles and that it comes with the territory as a person reaches certain milestones in his or her career.

At first, people would come up to me during conferences. I was a target of opportunity. They would see that I was in attendance. They would see the uniform. They would hand me a card and that would be that. Later, when I began presenting at conferences, the vendors and hawkers would suddenly become more interested. I wasn’t just someone to flirt with, I was worthy of a date. They would hang around after a presentation and, amid those asking questions and wanting to learn more about social media (the reason why I attend conferences), they would also strike up conversations, then lead into their pitches. Many of them were pretty good at this. I wouldn’t catch on that I was being pitched to right away, until the point in the conversation emerged where I was asked to either commit to purchasing their product, or giving them the name and number of someone who could.

Some vendors were graceful with this transition from rapport building to selling, many were not. Some were outright rude or insistent, like an online dating stalker.

Still later, when I became a fixture at several conferences, I would get cold calls from vendors who had heard my name mentioned by others. Some would mask their pitch by inviting me to a seminar or offering to meet somewhere for drinks, some would just start reading from their scripts. While it was flattering in a way to be seen as a gateway to riches and sales, I was always up front about my position: that I was a mere staff sergeant—a man of humble rank and position, who had simply been at the right place at the right time. My charisma, for what it is, had been shaped by my training and my proclivity for stage theater. My disposition had been shaped by my spirituality. Most of the time, I was a pretty easy guy to get along with, always eager to teach others and engage in conversations that would teach me something as well.

But I’ve begun to wear thin on the vendors and hawkers who don’t even try to ease me into a conversation. And it’s too bad. As a journalist, I always look forward to new conversations and new people. It’s the one area that we don’t normally grow cynical toward. Now, however, when someone comes up to me, calls or emails, I have to eye that with a level of suspicion. Am I being played? What is it they want? It’s an attitude I’d hoped to avoid, but a lesson probably better learned now than later.

Some vendors are so bad that they call, flatly asking me to solicit government employees for them. Some ask me for my contacts just a few seconds into the conversation—as if I have the friends and colleagues I do because I flood their inboxes with spam. Some ask how I would run their marketing if I were them.

And while I might be willing to give such data to even them, were they to not just brazenly demand it; I’m also taken aback by how little they engage me, as a person. During these conversations, I wait for my turn to speak, and routinely get little more than a chance to say “yes” or “that’s good” while they run down their bullet points of reasons why I should make them money.

There are exceptions. I have met a few start-up ventures that I do believe in. Those who man these businesses are a lot more mature in their approaches, even if ultimately they need the same thing from me. They offer to make me a part of the team. They ask for my input. And while there is the ever-present sense of urgency, it’s not a hard sell. I don’t feel guilty for taking lunch that day and going to bed that night without shoving their product down my friends’ throats.

In the end, maybe it’s all in the pitch. And maybe that’s a lesson for all of us “selling” social media to our coworkers and counterparts. Running across the vendors and hawkers at these conferences reminds me that, even with a product I believe in, I cannot neglect the community and rapport that is needed to transfer enthusiasm from me to another. While it may take time to engage the influencers in my life, I can either put in the work to listen to their needs and work with them to overcome obstacles, or I can be like these vendors and just shotgun blast everyone I see like the stereotypical car salesman.

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The importance of conference rapport

I have, to date, spoken at some two dozen seminars, conferences, panels or other public events where the audience is not my coworkers.

Not bragging, just saying that I’ve been to a few. Enough, I hope, to give an observation without having the more seasoned public speakers of the world laugh too hard. I know I’m just starting at this whole speaking circuit thing, but bear with me. I’d like to delve into a common mistake I see most of the VIPs at these conferences making. I want to explore why I think a measure of meekness is essential to be accepted as a worthwhile speaker. First, just a little background on yours truly.

I started my speaking gigs by accident. I was attending a social media for government seminar a couple of years back. My organization wanted me to go learn about what social media was. I already had a healthy knowledge of things, but they said they would feel more comfortable if I had a certificate or something, saying I knew what I knew. Fine. They ponied up the thousands of dollars necessary for me to earn a listening spot at a table in a Washington, D.C., hotel; I was able to escape the clamor of the office for a few days. Fair trade.

The conference was well-organized. The speakers were varied. The audience was engaged. But I had heard most of it before. A few of us had. I and a couple of others raised our hands a bit to bring up points of discussion. There were a few times when I was able to add a fresh viewpoint or other perspective. I tried to not be too overbearing. I know how annoying those know-it-alls in school always are. Still, by the end of the conference, people knew I was pretty comfortable with social media. I guess it was enough to show through in the end-of-conference summaries, because the organizers of the conference asked me to return for their next venue and speak.

It wasn’t out of the ordinary—these conferences self-perpetuate as attendees grow, learn and are asked to speak. It’s how the companies who run these events stay fresh. I was excited at the chance though. After the next event, I received several more invites. After those, several more. These things have a way of begetting further speaking opportunities.

DINFOS has a training course for new instructors. In this course, veteran educators teach the ragtag bunch of military journalists, broadcasters and public affairs officers how to impart knowledge in the classroom. There’s a lot to do to successfully reach the mind of an adult. Unlike children, who respond with external motivational factors like grades, candy or perhaps recess; adults learn through internal motivation. Someone has to appeal to an adult’s inner self—perhaps through self-interest (what’s in it for me?) or some sense of duty (performing well for the betterment of whatever). There are important steps that must be done prior to instructing.

An instructor must be respected. He or she must be seen as an authority or someone with a skill or bit of knowledge to share. An instructor must then be accepted by the audience. An instructor must coax engagement out of the audience, give an avenue for them to show their intellectual growth and then leave them encouraged at whatever skill or challenge an instructor wishes to impart.

This game is a miniature version of every leader ascension in the history of civilization. When a new leader wished to prove his or her dominance over a tribe/town/region/nation, these sorts of games had to happen too. Rapport was essential. An audience had to feel that the leader was a part of them—that the leader and they shared something. Perhaps it was a common interest in surviving. Perhaps it’s iPods. Whatever. Without rapport, people might listen, but it’s more out of dread or terror; either because of the position the leader/instructor holds, or the fear of what will happen if the audience member does not absorb the presented knowledge.

So, fast forward to most seminars and, finally, what I’m aiming at. I think it is essential that speakers show up early, stay for the entirety of the conference and know when to change their presentations. Most VIPs at these conferences whisk in and out. The most important ones have to, really. How often can President Obama just hang out? Probably not that often. So, were he to speak at one of these social media seminars, it would be an in-and-out venture. Granted.

But most of us can afford to stay longer. Perhaps we choose not to, because we wish to mimic the spectacle of the truly important members of society. If I’m jet setting to LA, Paris, or some meeting, I just have to scurry along. “Sorry I’m late, blah blah blah.” I’ll speak, get the applause and move out—on to the next critical event. I think too often speakers look to be celebrated as some sort of royalty. So whether it is because of honest busyness or ego, too many of us don’t invest in our audiences.

At every seminar I’ve ever been at as a speaker, I’m evaluated as the top or in the top three, so far as audience ratings go. Why? I think it has to do with rapport, honestly. I enjoy conversing with the attendees. I am an attendee at these seminars. I sit through the other lectures. I laugh and ask questions like the other attendees. When lunch comes around, I don’t make plans. I hang out with the others who are unsure where to go, how long we all have before we have to get back. Sometimes I eat alone. I crack some jokes. Most importantly, I think, is I listen. I talk about how the seminar is going. I hear people’s feedback on the other sessions—how two or three covered the same thing, or how one’s slides were too small, how another just tap-danced around the questions.

One disadvantage of most of these seminars is a general lack of content coordination. Most speakers flux—some cancel, all have different experience levels and areas of ability. As a result, especially in the volatile and formulating world of social media, many speakers cover the same thing. Or, they are so far removed from the audience members, they have absolutely no relevance.

The audience makeup doesn’t help speakers prepare either. Most of the seminars I have participated in are for government, but that is little help. In the audience there are usually contractors, government service employees, federal agencies, state agencies, non-profit, think tanks, marketing, businesses wishing to get into the government scene. There are police departments, Army guys, IT, legal, public affairs, directors, managers, workers….

A mess, especially if someone is trying to prepare material to speak to this disparate mob. So, most speakers default to a single or small series of lectures they give routinely. I know because I’ve seen several people pitch the same lecture years later. No one is the wiser if they attend only one event.

What I try to do is remain adaptable. Even if I’m covering similar material and borrowing from past presentations, I will rebuild new slide shows for every event. If I see several people giving the same lecture, I make sure I remove that material from my upcoming speech. If I hear people complaining about things being too loud, or the slides being too dark, I change my presentation to assuage the complaints. Most importantly, though, I listen to their situations through our conversations. I try to empower them. I try to build them up as much as I can. I offer my services. I give them examples. I add value to their conference experience.

And the result? Glowing reviews. Honest relationships. Continued invitations. It takes listening to make a great public speaker. The more grandiose a speaker’s introduction—when degrees and acronyms trip up the event organizer as he or she reads the biography…those are usually the speeches that lose the most people. There’s a hell of a disconnect there from the average government worker and the celebrated darlings of event organizers. If that speaker hasn’t taken the steps to be accepted by the tribe he or she stands before, then the following hour or two becomes a waste. The applause afterward is as much for the audience congratulating itself on surviving than any showing of appreciation.

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