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Navigating trade shows in the US: 12 tips for effective communication

How to communicate with your visitors to not bore them or scare them away.

Orange County Convention Center, FL
Orange County Convention Center, FL

Exhibiting at a US trade show is an investment of many thousands of dollars. You want to get the most out of the event. Knowing how to interact with your visitors and how to communicate in way that engages them is essential for success.

Whether you are an exhibitor showing your products or an attendee visiting booths to learn about other people's products, you must be able to start and have spontaneous conversations. That can be quite intimidating, especially, if you are a non-native English speaker. Luckily, it is something you can prepare for.

While this blog is focused on giving advice to trade show exhibitors, many of the tips and guidelines below are also useful for people who just visit and don't exhibit.

How to communicate effectively at the booth

It’s important to remember that every industry has its own way of talking. In addition, the US is a vast and diverse market and there are regional and demographic differences in how people communicate. There are, however, a few general guidelines you can follow to have great conversations and start building strong relationships for future success.

1. Know your goal.

Know why you are there and what you want to achieve. Do you want to present your brand? Do you want to network? Do you want to sell and make deals? That knowledge will guide your interactions and conversations. It will determine your and your team's talking points.

2. Prepare and practice conversation starters.

It is essential that you have three to five conversation starters ready. Practice them beforehand so they come naturally to you at the event. For a non-native English speaker, it can be hard to come up with the right things to say in ad-hoc situations.

If you are not well prepared, you are also more likely to say something inappropriate or culturally insensitive. Conversation starters should be light, but meaningful.

3. Don’t make assumptions.

In the US, people are not always dressed as formally as in Europe. Don’t judge visitors by their appearance. Treat everyone with the same amount of respect, attention, and good manners.

4. Don’t be afraid to make the first move.

Be friendly, greet your visitors with a warm smile, and don’t be afraid to start the conversation. Don’t wait for people to come to a full stop and walk into your booth before you engage with them. Position yourself and your team toward the front of the booth. This way you can greet attendees that walk by with a friendly and open smile.

5. Get to know your visitors.

Sign: Answers in 1km
Hadija on Unsplash

Don’t simply bombard your visitors with information about you or your product. Ask questions first and listen to what they say. Get to know them, understand who they are, what their business is, why they are at the show. Start building the relationship and focus on how you can help them.

6. Respect personal space.

This may seem like a minor thing, but it is important: Keep enough physical distance between you and your visitors. Respect people’s personal space. Standing too close can really put people off.

7. Be prepared for not understanding.

Trade shows draw crowds from all over the country and beyond. You may hear many different accents. Don’t pretend to understand when you don’t. Ask your visitor politely to slow down and repeat.

8. Be prepared for not being understood.

You may be fluent in English and feel confident about your skills, but there is a good chance that some visitors will not be able to understand you right away. That is because they are not used to your accent. You can reduce the likelihood of that happening by practicing beforehand and slowing down your own speaking.

Don’t underestimate the importance of accurate pronunciation. If people struggle to understand you, they are less likely to continue the conversation with you. It is simply too much effort.

9. Don’t jump in too deep too fast.

Don’t dive into the details right away. Give your visitor time. Start feeding information slowly and in a non-overpowering way. Be prepared to go deeper if you get the signals that your visitor is ready. Tune in.

10. Focus on the solution, not the problem.

I would like to start this point with a quick story: Just a few weeks ago, I attended a large trade show in Italy. The size of the event and the number of innovative products on display were truly impressive.

Fresh green juice

One of the exhibitors I chatted with was a European manufacturer of juicing equipment. I looked at the equipment and was curious about maintenance. So, I asked the following: “And how difficult is it to clean this machine?” The vendor’s answer was: “Oh, it is very difficult to clean.” And then he proceeded to show me why it was “very difficult”.

This would simply not be a good answer in the US. Why highlight a problematic aspect of your product? You may now think: But what if my product is difficult to operate or clean or complex in some other way?

If you have a complex product, focus on the services you provide to support your customers. For example, tell them that you have very thorough and easy-to-understand user instructions (which you must have for the US). Don't focus on the problems your product may cause for your potential customers. Tell them about the solutions you provide to solve their challenges.

11. Adjust your product literature.

Tape measure

Most companies have English language materials available for the international market and think that’s enough. It is not.

You must adjust your materials to the US market: wording, measurements, weights, etc.

At the booth, make sure to know any relevant numbers in inches, feet, pounds, ounces, etc. It’s ok to use a cheat sheet for that, but it’s important that you have it ready when you need it. And don’t forget to print any brochures and flyers in US paper format.

12. Make it fun and interactive.

Show attendees walk the large exhibition halls for hours. A good booth design may not be enough to get their attention. Get them out of their walking trance by offering something interactive and entertaining – a demonstration, a trial, or even a small game.

Trials and demonstrations provide great conversation openers. They allow you to ask questions like: “Would you like to try our product?” or “Would you like to see our product in action?”

What you can do before the show

Communication is often not at the top of people’s mind when they plan a trade show. There are many organizational and logistical questions that need to be resolved and that take priority.

It’s important to remember, though, that once you are at the booth, it all comes down to your ability to communicate effectively and create that connection with your visitors. For most people, that's not a natural skill set, especially not in a foreign language. It is, however, a skill set you can develop.

Preparing for how to communicate at the booth and at the various networking opportunities US trade shows provide is crucial. It should be part of the efforts leading up to the event, so you can handle your conversations with competence, confidence, and ease.

Contact me if you need help getting ready for an event. I look forward to hearing from you.

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