It’s time to make the most of the Summer Intergovernmental Affairs conference schedule. Keith Farazzi, author of the best-selling NEVER EAT ALONE, offers a sage strategy for being successful at any conference. His strategy is called “How to be a Conference Commando” and you can find Keith’s system here. I’d encourage you to get it and other free resources from Never Eat Alone here Below, I have highlighted 6 of his 15 steps to show you how to master State Legislative Conferences using his great advice.
As you’ve have likely seen, there is a never-ending alphabet soup of literally hundreds of state and local legislative organizations. I constantly field questions about whether or not a particular conference is worth attending. Generally my answer is “yes, but…” The “but” leads into Farazzi’s first point.
#1 Remember the 7 P’s. Proper Prior Planning Prevents Piss-Poor Performance. Military strategists know that most battles are won before the first shot is fired. The side that determines where, when, and how an engagement is fought usually gains an insurmountable advantage. So get focused. Take time weeks before the conference to think through and write down why you are attending. What do you want to achieve? Who do you want to meet? The more clearly you articulate what you want and need from the conference, the more likely you can plan and execute your mission.
Always go in with a plan. Some of these conferences attract several thousands of attendees. If you don’t have a plan when you go in, and arrange to connect with people beforehand, it’s unlikely you are just going to bump into the right people.
Each of these groups also has different strengths and weaknesses, as well as different programming and events. Know what those are before you commit to attending, and make sure the conferences advances you or your organization’s objectives. I once met with a Fortune 25 company that belonged to 63 state and local government groups but only had 3 state and local staffers working these memberships. They were spending a ton of money and time on engagement but not reaping many rewards.
One of the best ways to understand the players involved and get the most from your relationships is to reach out to peers who have engaged with these groups. If you don’t have peers–get some! Two excellent resources for this are SGAC (State Government Affairs Council) and, if you are in the DC area, WASRG (Washington Area State Relations Group). Both are great ways to meet and learn from the best in the state government relations business.
And they can potentially be your wingman. #7 Get a wingman. Just as people lose weight more effectively if they have a workout partner, you'll start more of the relationships you want if you team up. You and your buddy can provide each other motivation, guidance, and assistance if you’ll share with each other your real reasons for attending the conference, whether it’s to look for a new job, to fill your sales pipeline, or maybe even to seek a romantic relationship. Wouldn’t it be great to show up to the conference with somebody who’s actually on your side, who’s got your back, who’s working with you?
It’s easier to work a conference with allies–people to share intelligence with regarding off-agenda events, people to meet, etc. Additionally, while he or she probably isn’t your wingman, it’s always a great strategy to draft off a big kahuna.
#8 Draft off a big kahuna. Get to know some of the most well-known folks at the conference or the conference organizers themselves and hang with them. The important people will rotate by them sooner or later. If you’re there, you'll meet everyone who matters. And if you need to reach out to someone who doesn’t happen to swing by, ask your new friend—a big kahuna—for an introduction.
Inevitability, at every meeting, a number of Big Kahunas attend who sometimes are Big Kahunas because they are in positions of power. More likely, they are simply personally charismatic, interesting and friendly people who the big attendees gravitate to. If you can draft off their presence, you will meet everyone you need to meet.
You can also engage a firm with specialized experience in intergovernmental affairs groups like mine, CC: External Affairs, Inc.
Don’t forget to utilize staff when you attend. The staff of these groups are very knowledgeable and usually more than willing to help you navigate your first meeting, learn their processes and even introduce you to the group’s leadership and key members. Some of them are Big Kahunas themselves, and almost all of them are great connectors.
One of the best pieces of advice that I gleaned from Never Eat Alone, and have seen practiced by some of the best in the State Government Affairs, is Hijack a dinner.
#11 Hijack a dinner. True commandos aren’t constrained by the agendas they receive at registration. Arrange a dinner at a special place out on the town you’re visiting with people who care about a particular topic that matters to you, or modify a conference meal that’s already paid for by inviting specific people to join your table as you meet them during the day. There’s usually no assigned seating. And if there is, just tell a conference organizer that you prefer to reassign yourself. They exist to make the conference better for you.
If you have the resources, you can host an off-site dinner. But if you don’t, ask people to join you at your table for a meal that is already on the agenda. It’s basically like hosting a dinner party on someone else’s tab, but if done right, your guests will appreciate you for helping them have a good time as well.
Sharing a meal with other attendees is also a great way to break the ice and get to know people on a deeper level. Conferences are often filled with people who are afraid to get in too deep – they aren’t willing to risk moving beyond conventional small talk. But if you let your guard down and work on fostering real relationships rather than talking about the weather, you can connect on a real level and share why you are interested in connecting. This transitions directly into mastering the deep bump.
#13 Master the Deep Bump. Once you’ve successfully taken your conversation with a new acquaintance down deep, past the shallow small talk, secure an invitation to reconnect later. Then bump! Move on and meet more people. Don’t be like the co-dependent ankle hugger who thinks the first person he meets is his best friend forever.* You’ve invested too much time and money in this conference not to take the opportunity to meet many different people. You have a lifetime to build relationships with people at the conference, but only a few days to meet them.
It’s critically important to make sure that you connect, make plans for connecting again, follow up, etc., but you have to be sure not to latch on too hard. It’s a rookie mistake and one you don’t need to make. Remember, you have lots of people to meet and a life time to grow your new relationships.
Once you get home, you need to take advantage of Farazzi’s final point- Follow up or Fail!
#15 Follow up or fail. Don't wait until you return home from the conference to ping people whose cards you collect. Shoot out follow-up e-mails each night of the event or write them during your flight home. That is, unless you want that same rubber-banded stack of cards on your desk a year from now, which is probably the result of last year’s conference if you went as a commoner and not a commando. Either way, best of luck next time! And you’ll need it if you don’t remember the 7 P’s!
Make sure you turn your new connections into long-term relationships by following up with a note or dropping in to say hello the next time you are in their state. Do whatever you can to ensure your new contact grows into a long term relationship.
Hopefully these tips will help you become a Legislative Conference Commando and increase the value of your time spent at state legislative conferences and build valuable lasting relationships. I’d love for you to share your conference tips and stories with me either in the comments below or email me firstname.lastname@example.org. See you on the road.
Chaz Cirame is the former head of membership, conferences and public affairs for the American Legislative Exchange Council. He is the Founder and Principal of Cc: External Affairs, Inc.