Virtual events definitely have their place. After all, we learned to live with them for something like 16 months. But can you sense the excitement for something else – something live – that’s been building these days?
In-person conferences and events in public safety are finally back, with a glut in the late summer and fall as planners who’d pushed their meetings ahead from original winter and spring dates rev up for a new slate of events.
That means this is an ideal time to shake off the rust and oil up your networking machine to connect with leaders across law enforcement, fire, EMS, 911 and more. Even if you’re already good at making and building connections, this advice will take you from good to great.
Remember that while networking often happens spontaneously, great networking takes preparation.
Do you want to meet a certain Chief, connect with new colleagues or set up a business dinner at your next conference? When we help clients arrange meetings like these, we start booking a month out–at least. If that sounds excessive, remember that industry leaders and key prospects, as well as the faculty and presenters at the conference, are usually busy and very in-demand.
So consider your approach. Start by studying the conference program and getting to know who will be speaking. And definitely attend as many sessions as you can. The start of a great networking relationship can begin before you meet someone at a conference, too. If you’re connecting with someone via a webinar or other virtual event for the first time, take a few minutes to look up their LinkedIn profile and ask if they’ll also be attending any of the same events on your calendar.
The first couple days of the official conference can be very busy, which means meetings can be a lot more difficult to arrange. Look to see who’s attending or speaking at any pre-conference workshops, which are typically two or more days before the event’s official start. Breakfasts, lunches and dinners and even a quick coffee date can be easier to pull together during this time—plus you’ll have the rest of the conference to build on these new connections.
Take your elevator pitch for a few rides before the event.
A few years ago, I was at a hotel bar with a new colleague at one of the big public safety trade conferences. We were talking football and discovered we were both big Green Bay Packers fans. That spurred more discussion and finally he asked, “Keith, I sort of know what you and RedFlash do, but I’m not really sure.”
So I launched into our elevator pitch, which goes something like, “We’re a national consulting firm providing strategic marketing and communications specifically for the public safety professions.” I mentioned some of our clients and added “at our most basic, we help great organizations tell their story.”
It was the last part that really resonated with him. “We’ve got a great organization,” he told me, “but nobody knows about us.” That was the start of a long professional relationship that included our creating a communication plan that resulted in national trade press coverage and a highly creative annual report. Ultimately, his agency gained national recognition as one the best in the country.
An elevator pitch is an entry point, a way of making a first impression that sets you up for further discussion. Which is why we build it into all of our clients’ communication plans. In fact, we even go so far to develop a quick “five-story” version, as well as a “60-story, New York City” option for situations where you have a little more time to talk about what you do and the value you bring to public safety.
Consider hosting a networking dinner for public safety leaders.
There are good reasons why breaking bread is the most common way for people to get to know one another. A formal lecture will never equal the leisurely, friendly feeling of connecting, or re-connecting, over a meal or even a cup of coffee or cocktail.
When it comes to setting up networking dinners for our clients, we find four to six people to be the magic number. More than that and the tendency is for guests to break into subgroups, each having its own conversation.
We’ve also had good success organizing education-oriented dinners. This can be a great way to introduce a new product to a larger audience of key opinion leaders and potential buyers. We start with a brief presentation of the product or service, with a moderator then guiding and prompting a discussion about relevant topics. I once had a young, up-and-coming leader tell me that a dinner meeting we facilitated was the highlight of the conference for him. It was a chance to discuss an important issue and network with key people in a relaxed setting, with a good meal to boot!
There was a time when I didn’t pay much attention to the setting of a meeting. But over time, I’ve come to realize that the space – whether a private room at an iconic local restaurant or the dining room at a hotel with a magnificent view – can elevate the conversation and the experience, making it even more memorable. I recall one meeting at a restaurant that used to be a bank. Our dinner for 10 was held in what used to be the vault. It was impeccably decorated and also very quiet, perfect for conversation. Similarly, I also remember a few settings that weren’t so great, like the dinner we held by a beautiful waterfall; the ambience was terrific but you could only hear the person sitting directly across from you unless you happened to read lips.
Cultivate the fine arts of conversation and curiosity.
A number of RedFlash team members come from a journalism background, so maybe curiosity about people’s stories comes more naturally to us. In one of our recent posts, my colleague Jeff Berend talked about the importance of establishing trust in your relationships with those in public safety. That means being genuine, and perhaps even vulnerable, as you build a relationship.
One of my mentors was the late Lois Clark McCoy, a leader in the urban search and rescue (USAR) community and someone who commanded the attention of generals and admirals at her meetings. At the start of every one of her expansive advisory board meetings – each of which was its own networking extravaganza – Lois would pose an ice-breaker question. It could be as simple as “tell something about yourself that nobody at this table already knows,” or “tell us a story about your first car.”
The point was, it started a conversation and humanized everyone at the table, whether you had five stars or none. To this day, I unabashedly use ice-breakers at meetings I facilitate. (You’d be surprised at the great stories people have about their first car.)
Keep nurturing your network.
One of the greatest networkers in public safety history was Jim Page, whom many call “the father of modern EMS.” Even though he was a legend, Jim seemed to remember everyone he ever met, no matter their circumstance, including their names. Needless to say, people really appreciated that about him.
Not everyone is gifted with that kind of memory. There was a VP of sales for a public safety software company who is a truly masterful networker. But he really works at it. He doesn’t just track the basics about his customers and prospects, like contact information. He also collects personal information about their hobbies, their family and where they’re headed on vacation—really anything that can get a conversation going, as long as it comes across as appropriate and genuine.
I recently had a first meeting with the director of public safety for a major multinational firm. Turns out in his first life he was a U.S. Navy submarine officer in my hometown of San Diego. He had a great story to tell about a near-death experience that included almost crashing a sailboat into the rocky coast at the entrance to our harbor.
When we all return to live networking at conferences, I can’t wait to meet him in person and hear more about his history. So whether you encounter a new face at a formal dinner meeting or during a demo at a booth in the exhibit hall, my best advice is simply to take a little time to learn a bit about their history and what they do. I promise you, that curiosity makes networking not only more effective but a lot more fun.