Here’s how trade shows really work: you pay thousands of dollars to buy a “booth,” which is a 10×10 square of carpet on the show floor. For everything else, the trade show organizers charge you thousands of dollars extra: tables, chairs, displays, even the freaking electricity. (They literally charge you hundreds of dollars to run a 10-foot extension cord down to your booth.) Then you pay for everyone to go out there: travel, hotels, and food. Then, after spending all that money, your employees screw it up, because you haven’t trained them properly.

At the trade shows where our company Media Shower has a booth, I am regularly appalled by the lazy, sloppy, undisciplined approach of most companies around us. I think if the business owners were there, they would be appalled, too. It seems to me most employees haven’t been taught a few simple fundamentals about working trade shows. Here are the three basic rules that every company should give their employees.

Rule #1: Stand up.

Your job is to work the booth. This means standing up, on your feet, for the duration of the show. Do not text on your phone. Do not type on your laptop. Do not look bored, tired, or disengaged. This is Disney World, and you are an actor. If you’re going to be there, be there. If you need to take a short break or make a phone call, go into a corner where no one can see you.

It is mind-boggling how many employees, especially toward the end of a show, will be sitting down, lost in their phones, their feet propped up on the $2,000 rental sofa. Who’s going to approach a booth where people are texting?

On one level, I understand this. Working a trade show is draining. If you’ve never done it, you can’t appreciate how exhausting it is. You have to be on — and on your feet — for an entire day. By the end, you want to kick back and have a beer. You can kick back when the trade show’s over. While you’re on the floor, stand up and look professional. Pretend you’re a clerk in a high-end retail store. If you do this, you look good, your company looks good, and your product looks good.

Some companies cheat, by getting a table with high chairs, so they can remain seated, behind the table. Don’t do this. The table creates a wall between you and your potential customers, and you look like a clerk at the DMV. Get rid of the table. Break down the barrier. Stand out there, where you can have a face-to-face conversation. Make the effort. Your excellence will stand out.

Rule #2: Make eye contact.

As people walk by, look them in the eye and say hello. Most trade shows are a maze of undifferentiated companies, totally indistinguishable except by whether they have free keychains or free candy on their table. It’s sensory overload. People strolling through the show floor don’t really want to talk to anybody, because they’re going to get a sales pitch.

If you say hello, and make eye contact, some people will ignore you. But some will be so glad that somebody has stood out in some way that they will stop to chat. And that, friends, is the point of exhibiting at a trade show. You want to actually talk to people.

I’m going to repeat that: The point of exhibiting at a trade show is talking to people.

People do not magically learn about your company through osmosis. They do not readily absorb the 10,000 word brochure you have printed on your pop-up display. They are not impressed by the free fun-size candy bars in your glass jar. The only way to introduce your company is to talk to them.

There is a reason exhibitors don’t make eye contact, don’t stand up straight, don’t greet potential customers, and it’s this: it feels awkward to stand there. This is especially true if no one is talking to you. To deal with this uncomfortable feeling — and because most workers are chronically distracted anyway — they pull out their phone or laptop, and boom! Inaccessible.

This is part of the job. Get used to it. Deal with the awkwardness. Say to yourself, “I’m going to be better than everybody else here, and they’re going to remember me for it.” Pretend this is Brooks Brothers, and you’re fitting people for suit coats. Be a pro; it will show.

Rule #3: Let them do the talking.

When a potential customer approaches your booth, she will almost always start off the conversation with the same question: “So what does your company do?”

If you’re like most sales reps, you will then launch into a twenty-minute monologue about the company, the product, and the benefits, never pausing for a moment to see what the potential customer does, or even whether she understands what the hell you’re saying.

Your company pitch should be a maximum of one sentence. One sentence! That is the attention span of most trade show attendees after they’ve been assaulted with the cacophony of noise, lights, and scantily-clad women around you. If you can’t get it down to a sentence, you don’t know what you’re selling.

Here’s how it works at the Media Shower booth. Guy walks up, asks, “So what does Media Shower do?”

“We help you grow your business through great content, that builds more organic search traffic, more leads, and more sales. What do you do?”

The “What do you do?” followup turns the conversation around. It gives them permission to tell you about their business. If you want to engage them, just ask what they do. It’s so simple.

This approach has several benefits. First, it is easier to sustain the conversation. Everyone loves talking about themselves. Sales reps who drone on about their product have a hard time getting anybody interested. If you can just listen for a while, ask some thoughtful questions about their business, eventually they’ll be genuinely curious about what it is you’re selling, and why you’re not talking about it. The best way to sell is not to sell.  

Second, you can tailor your approach to fit their needs. Once you understand their business, their needs, and their pain points, you can position your product in a way that speaks to them. You can also see if this is really a potential customer, or someone who’s not a good fit. At Media Shower, we will often turn prospective customers away if we can’t help them — which of course makes them want to work with us even more!

There is a third, little-recognized benefit to getting them talking: demand breeds more demand. When people are congregating around your booth, it creates a strange psychological pull for others who are strolling the show floor. If people are congregating around your booth, after all, there must be something going on. Everyone else will want to get in on the action. At the very least, they notice you.
Thus, if you follow the instructions above, you will soon find people congregating — if not flocking — to your booth. You will see others hanging on the periphery, waiting in line to talk to you. Let them wait. Resist the urge to cut your current conversation short so that you can talk to everyone. Some people will wander away, but the real prospects will come back. Meanwhile, you’ve got that most prized possession: a potential customer, talking to you.

And talking to people — real, face-to-face conversations with flesh-and-blood human beings — is the point of spending all that money on trade shows. Talking to people, once you get the hang of it, is not just wildly profitable. It’s actually kind of fun.

Sir John Hargrave is the CEO of Media Shower and author of Mind Hacking, available in 2016 from Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books. This post is free to distribute under Creative Commons 4.0: if you like it, share it.