The Five Biggest Conference Mistakes You Can Make: Lessons Learned from FNCE

Last month, thousands of registered dietitians (RDs) from across the US – and some international RDs – traveled to Boston for the annual Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE). This was my 7th time attending FNCE and over the years I’ve come home with fresh information about nutrition science and new colleagues to add to my network. Since FNCE ended there have been some great articles about food trends that other dietitians gleaned from the conference (including this one from Meal Makeover Moms). This year, one of the things I learned about media is that negative headlines get 69% more click-throughs compared to positive or neutral headlines. Hence, the headline of this article. In addition to media stats and new evidence around nutrition science, over the years I’ve learned some valuable lessons about how to best present yourself at a conference or networking event. Unless you immediately want to make a bad impression, here’s five of the worst things you can do at a conference or networking event.

  1. Wear sweatpants (or anything less than business casual attire to ANY conference-related event). I use this example because I actually had a conversation with an attendee at a FNCE networking event who was wearing sweatpants and flip-flops. Maybe I’m old school, but I truly believe in the adage, “dress for the job you want not the one you have.” Have some respect for your profession and your colleagues and don’t wear anything you wouldn’t wear to a job interview.

  2. Send anyone other than your “A” team. This one is mostly for exhibitors. I can’t tell you how many exhibitors I talked with who were either just incorrect about the health benefits, label claims, research, etc. of the product they were promoting, or who gave me answers that seemed nonsensical and incomplete. As an exhibitor, it is far better for you to just not attend an event than to send staff who aren’t well versed in your product. With the growing mistrust of the food industry, the worst thing you can do is share inaccurate information with a group of dietitians who came to learn more about your product and who know the information you’re sharing is incorrect. Will they trust your brand if this happens? NO. Similarly, for attendees, I know it’s hard to stay calm when someone is telling you their product has nutritional benefits that you know it doesn’t have, but please do everyone in our profession a favor and remain civil and respectful. Over the years I’ve seen attendees at conferences actually yell at exhibitors and speakers with whom they disagreed. It’s OK to disagree and the exhibit floor is your opportunity to question the products and provide your own perspective to the exhibitors, but please remember that you are representing not only yourself but your profession and there’s a polite and professional way to disagree and present an alternative perspective.

  3. Dismiss the people who stop by your booth. This one is also mostly for exhibitors. Attendees pay a lot of money and sometimes even must take time off work to attend a conference. As an exhibitor, your employer has also paid a lot of company money to be present at a meeting. When people stop by your booth, don’t avert your eyes and check your watch. Stand up, make eye contact and engage the person who stops by. Yes, you have your own agenda for being there, you have many people to talk with and you have competing priorities. However, the person who has taken his or her time to stop at your booth and engage you about your product should be your priority. You never know what their role is: They could be the procurement officer for a multi-million-dollar food account, they could be a leading food blogger with a large following, or they could just be someone who wants to learn more. Taking the time to talk with them now could pay dividends later.

  4. Check your phone while you’re in a conversation with someone. Again, maybe I’m old school but when I’m talking with someone and they repeatedly check their phone during our conversation it sends a message that what we are talking about and my time isn’t valuable to them, and that they have better things to do. I understand, your boss may be blowing up your phone wondering where his/her talking points are for the upcoming presentation, or you can’t remember what time your next networking event starts or you want to see if you have any messages from your spouse about the status of your kids, but the point of attending conferences is to network. You never know, the person you’re talking to could end up being the hiring manager at the next job you apply for and you better believe they will remember the person who couldn’t give them five minutes of uninterrupted time – and not in a good way.

  5. Arrive late to a session and start asking questions to the person next to you about what the speaker has been saying. No explanation needed. This one is just annoying!

It seems like people have forgotten the power of a first impression. While it is possible to overcome a bad first impression and change your initial opinion of someone, it is harder than simply making a positive impression to begin with. Whether you are an attendee, exhibitor or speaker, the best thing you can do at a conference is to bring the best version of yourself.  For some more tips, check out this article from Sarah Koszyk on Networking Mistakes Not to Make.
While you may be happy with your job now, you don’t know what the future holds. Even if you never need to capitalize on any of the networking you do at a conference, it doesn’t hurt to leave everyone you meet thinking only positive thoughts about you.
These are just a few things I’ve noticed over the years. What have you learned from conferences and networking events that you wouldn’t recommend people do?