Peter’s Law of Reciprocity: The Key to Successfully Attending a Convention

By Peter Lyle DeHaan, Ph.D.

Author Peter Lyle DeHaan

Over the years, I’ve attended numerous conventions, trade shows, expos, and conferences. Often, my role is that of a reporter and photographer. Sometimes I’m there to make a presentation, others times as an exhibitor, and occasionally as an attendee. For each of these functions, there are certain requisite steps needed in order to achieve a rewarding outcome.

A plethora of books and articles has been written on how to give a inning speech or make a memorable presentation. Likewise, much has been offered on how to successfully stage and staff a trade show booth for optimum results. There is also ample advice for reporters and photographers.

What has not been covered is how to succeed as an attendee. Although “how to be a successful attendee” may seem trivial or self-evident, all too often, people miss the mark. How many times have you heard a co-worker or friend, just returning from such an event, lament, “It was a waste of my time.”  To be candid, I’ve said that as well; so if you concur, you’re not alone. It is true that some events may actually be a waste of time; however, more often than not, we only get out of them what we put into them. Therefore, it’s of critical importance that, as attendees, we too plan and strive for a successful convention.

As an attendee, what are your goals and intentions? Some people attend as a means to get away, visit a new place, or do some sightseeing. These are really mini-vacations written off as business trips; I’ll leave that between you and the IRS. Others have the goal of seeing long-time industry friends. Setting these instances aside, the prime business justification for attending a convention is to learn: to encounter new ideas and concepts, to identify industry trends and developments, and to discover innovations to take back to your call center. With this goal in mind, intentionality is required if the results are to be maximized.

The Law of Reciprocity: Too many people, intent on maximizing their learning, have a self-centered, protective attitude about it. They want to receive all the information and insights that they can, but they are guarded, paranoid, or even disingenuous about sharing their knowledge. This is shortsighted; it is truly better to give than to receive. In this regard, I’ve developed a principle to guide me when attending a trade show – and for life in general. I call it Peter’s Law of Reciprocity, which states: “Everyone you meet knows something you don’t… so politely and tactfully learn what it is. Conversely, everyone you meet doesn’t know everything you do…so be willing to graciously share whatever you can when you are asked.”

This principle has served me well. When I have chosen only to receive information, my close-mindedness has served to limit what I could receive. Conversely, once when I opted to only share information, I erroneously grew to believe that people needed what I had to offer. The result was an unfortunate, patronizing attitude, which I hope to never repeat.

Asking: When soliciting information, exercise discretion. Some things are off-limits. Personal information, trade secrets, and strategic plans are prime examples. Also, it is critical to be actually interested in what you ask. Insincere and devious queries serve to quickly short-circuit the uninhibited gifting of information.

When making a query, it is acceptable to take notes. Don’t rely on your memory. Some people assume that making notes is rude. I disagree. Jotting down what was said conveys respect for the speaker and affirms the value of their message. Note taking shows that what is being said is deemed as noteworthy.

Sharing: There are likewise guidelines when sharing information. First, be careful not to betray a confidence or divulge a secret. It’s critical to use discretion and common sense to protect and respect the privacy of others – if you don’t, people will stop sharing with you. It’s also important to not offer unsolicited advice. The only outcomes of proclaiming unwanted counsel are to be ignored or viewed as arrogant. Lastly, it is critical to not talk down to your inquirer; instead, treat them with honor and respect.

Expand Your Horizons: It’s human nature to gravitate to those we know. This means that our natural tendency will be to seek information from and share knowledge with our friends. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, except that after a while, ideas – including the bad ones – are recycled and get re-enforced. If something is repeated often enough it is believed and accepted, even if it’s unjustified. I call this intellectual incest, a provocative, yet apt description of what happens when information is continually re-circulated among a small group of closely connected people. Certainly, we should talk with our friends at conventions, but we need to be careful of indiscriminately accepting what is said.

More valuable than interacting with our friends and acquaintances is interacting with those we don’t know. These are the people most likely to share something fresh, new, or innovative. Although this is easier to suggest than to do, most of my “aha!” moments have occurred when talking with someone I just met.

Co-workers: Even more limiting than focusing our interactions on our friends is to restrict our attention to our traveling companions – be it family or co-workers. Although this is a natural tendency, it prevents us from exposure to the new thoughts and diverging viewpoints of others.

When I travel with co-workers, I set prearranged limits on how much time we spend together in order to put us in positions of interactions with others. Yes, we schedule time to reconvene and share what we learned, as well as to just relax in each other’s company, but for the most part we intentionally split up, sitting with, eating with, and meeting with others in order to maximize our opportunities to learn – and to be available to share, since it is much easier to connect with someone by themselves than when we are part of a group.

Though it is often uncomfortable to talk to a stranger or ask them a question, those are the precise times when I am the most benefited. Similarly, it is when I seek to freely share information that I unexpectedly receive the most satisfaction. Both instances lead to an expanded understanding and an enhanced perspective – which is the purpose of a convention.

Peter Lyle DeHaan, PhD, is the publisher and editor-in-chief of AnswerStat. He’s a passionate wordsmith whose goal is to change the world one word at a time.

[From the June/July 2010 issue of AnswerStat magazine]