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Robin Hoyle

Huthwaite International

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

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The 7 highly ineffective habits of exhibitors


Last week I went back to Olympia and the Learning Technologies show.  A chance to catch up with a few people but also to see what shape the industry is in – what’s hot and what is decidedly not.
As with every exhibition I go to there are a number of exhibitor behaviours which deserve a little scrutiny.  If you are exhibiting in the near future, you might also want to take my advice – after all, it’s not being used by me or anyone else.  So here are the seven highly ineffective behaviours of exhibitors as observed at last week’s learning technologies.

1. Staff your stand with bored 20 year olds.
Being at an exhibition at somewhere like Olympia is an expensive business.  Many thousands of pounds will have been spent on having a stand to provide a shop window for your goods, services, innovations and insights.  Why then is the only person on the stand sitting slumped over their mobile phone looking as uninterested as possible?  Yes, they were using a piece of technology.  Who knows they may have been familiarising themselves with your whizzy mobile learning app.  Alternatively they might have been outlining to their facebook friends how bored/hung over/ or generally hacked off they were that they’d been left on their jack jones.  Most businesses in the learning technologies field are relatively small.  They probably have one or two really inspirational and well informed people who know all about the product, all about the rationale for their service differentiation and provide the real ideas behind their brand.  But they weren’t universally in evidence.  I know it is hard work being on your feet all day.  I know it’s not glamorous.  I know it doesn’t communicate just how important you are.  But if your business is all about one or two real visionaries – and many of them are – then have those visionaries on the stand promoting what you do.  The stands which stand out have really smart people on them who know what they are talking about.

2. Create barriers between the punters and your demo/literature.
The layout of some of the stands was problematic and may not have been the exhibitor’s fault.  But if you choose to lay your stand out with any kind of barrier between what you do and the people who need to know about it, you’re really not making best use of the space.  Too many stands had a phalanx of tables, work stations, counters and freebies between the punters and the demonstrations of services available.  Yes, I desperately need your branded stress ball (or penguin, phone or clock) but too often these got a higher billing than the company, the product or the people. Sometimes  the barrier was the people on the stand – invariably sitting on high stools working on a lap top or engaged in deep – and uninterruptable - conversation with their colleagues.  I watched people wander up to the stand, look briefly to see if they could work out what it was that was being sold and then move off, none the wiser.

3. Describe everything as innovative
I know the show was learning technologies and everyone wants something shiny and new,  but perhaps just sometimes products could be tried and tested, or proven or anything other than innovative.  The trouble is, they rarely are that innovative.  If an innovation is ‘a good idea put to use’, please make sure you’ve actually used it before inflicting it on us. Have some track record and evidence of its use and check that not everyone at the show has an innovation which looks remarkably similar. The number of times I was shown something which was ‘just launched at the show’ was tedious.  What’s more, sometimes the team on the stand were clearly very excited but a little short-sighted about the uses of their new wonder product, because..

4. Our innovation solves all your problems!
No it bloomin’ well doesn’t!  If you have a new thing to launch ensure anyone talking about it knows precisely what it does and what it doesn’t do! Your new mobile app might be right good.  It might solve the problem of getting short reinforcement messages out to field based staff, it may help staff away from the office find out information just when they need it.  It won’t replace every other mode of learning!  We’ve been here before with e-Learning or the use of social media in learning programmes and a host of other revolutionary new ideas.  They all have their place and they may add speed, convenience or availability to the training mix.  But some forms of more traditional training – one to one coaching, active learning in a workshop, undertaking a simulation with colleagues or teaching other people how to do something you’ve just learned how to do yourself,  provide a different and effective way of developing understanding and actually learning things.   Sometimes at Learning Technologies it would be nice if there was a bit more emphasis on learning rather than just technology.  The question I always ask of the innovative product sellers is “Under what circumstances would you advise your clients not to use this?”  Try it next time you’re at an exhibition.  More effective than being rude and ensures you won’t be bothered anymore.  Of course a lot of new product launches take advantage of the seminar programme and there are some pretty ineffective activities there as well...

5. Use a hand held mike
Many of the exhibitors chose to avail themselves of the chance to strut their stuff in front of an audience.  The free seminar programme was certainly of interest to those who attended.  Hardly enough standing room for many of the sessions delivered by the exhibitors.  But the sound! There were 6 different seminar theatres and – to be fair to the organisers – the sound was reasonably well isolated one from the other.  But when you throw into the mix the looping demos with animated characters talking to you, the general hubbub of the show and the fact that no one seemed to have been equipped with lapel microphones, it could be difficult to hear.  This was not helped by the use of hand held mikes.  These take practice.  Unless you’re very confident, they can be really difficult to get right.  You don’t want to be too ostentations – after all you’re not Snoop Dog and unlikely to be encouraging the gathered HR teams to “put their hands in the air like they just don’t care!”  Similarly, sitting with one buttock on a high stool makes you look like Des O’Connor. Not a good look for many of us.  You will want to walk around a bit, but as you do, you move your head and occasionally the microphone moves with you.  Most of the time it doesn’t and your voice comes in waves – now too loud and indistinct, now indecipherable and now drowned by feedback as you move too close to the speakers.  If you feel in any way self conscious using a hand held mike, that's what you look like to your audience. If you’re paying for the privilege of your seminar spot – demand better sound and get a lapel mike not a hand held. Of course, if you’ve got a hand held mike, you can facilitate the Q&A at the end of your session
No you can’t.
The seminars are packed – especially on the first morning and over lunchtime.  Running some kind of Q&A session simply doesn’t work if no one – including the speaker – can hear the questions.  What’s more, as soon as you start on the Q&A people will start moving – anxious to get to the coffee before a queue builds up or off to the next free seminar on the other side of the hall.  The noise of people getting up, apologising to their neighbour as they trip up over the outsize shopping bags with the sponsor’s name on which are littered around like some kind of obstacle course, and checking their mobile phone messages means it’s better to finish early and ask people to come and talk individually if they have questions.

6. Use your seminar to demonstrate software live using the venue WiFi
Enough said really. Everyone else is using the venue WiFi too.  As well as that exhibitor who has ‘innovated’ by incorporating YouTube clips into their programme which they are now streaming from the neighbouring stand (video in training courses – who knew you could do that!!) lots of the attendees are tweeting away, their tablet directed towards the wireless network and the whole thing slows down like your home broadband when the teenagers come home and begin having online conversations with the person they left ten minutes ago.  Watching someone’s screen as they say “sorry about this, it was working earlier” as a little circle trundles slowly round is just embarrassing.  You want to console them as the panic spreads.  What you don’t want to do is buy their product afterwards.  If you must demonstrate software, load it up on your laptop’s hard disc.  Please don’t rely on the bandwidth available at an exhibition.

7. Incorporate lots of bullet points into your presentation.
The last one is the most heinous of the lot.  I must have seen twenty different seminar presentations and only a very few didn’t rely on PowerPoint slides with information you could barely read and reveals of ten bullet points per slide, mostly in 14pt Arial.  PowerPoint is the most ubiquitous learning technology around.  If you can’t use it properly – or at least inventively – then don’t expect to be taken seriously by anyone at a show called Learning Technologies!

Now I know that many of the people who will read this will have seen me exhibiting in my previous lives.  You may even have seen me present at a seminar and yes, I probably have done all the things I’ve complained about here.  But as I say, I’m not using the advice – you might as well have it.

5 Responses

  1. Great article

     Thanks for this Robin – it all seems common sense but somehow we don’t see it through the prospective client’s eyes. I especially agrre about the PowerPoint slides – can’t understand why anyone would think that desely written slides are going to help get a message across!

  2. The 7 highly ineffective habits of exhibitors


    Yes, thanks Robin.  All too painfully familiar.

  3. 7 deadly habits

    Oh, these are all too familiar regardless of the purpose of the conference.

    I hope some of the regular exhibitors at various CIPD Conferences and WOLFE read this and actually put some thought into attracting people to their stands, welcoming them (and not pouncing on them) when they get there and making the interactions meaningful.

    I would also add standing around looking foolish and waiting for someone to fix the IT to the Hand-held mic/relying on WIFI list of things not to do if you’re running a seminar.  If you are an L&D professional you should always have a Plan B for when (not if) technology fails. 

Author Profile Picture
Robin Hoyle

Head of Learning Innovation at Huthwaite International

Read more from Robin Hoyle

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