OPINION: Interpersonal Communication Still Matters

by David D. Menzies

RALEIGH, N.C. -- At a recent event in Raleigh -- the annual two-day 2016 CED Life Science Conference at the Raleigh Convention Center, presented each year by CED in partnership with NCBiotech and NCBio -- there were numerous opportunities to network. Some involved your basic hallway interactions, others at exhibit booths, still more at tables or in the next chair over at panel discussions and lectures. It was interesting to watch how people connected, and still more interesting to watch missed opportunities. The common thread in both cases was the ability of people to master the art of interpersonal communication.

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I was a communication major in college. That's communication with an "n" and not communications with an "s" just to be clear. It's an important distinction, since in my case I studied as much about the way individuals communicate with each other on an interpersonal level as much as I studied about various journalism and public relations techniques. I graduated in 1989, but 27 years later I'm still fascinated by the relevance of what I was taught, especially in an age of mobile electronic communication.

The CED conference was a showcase for the right and wrong way to approach interpersonal communication. As it is each year, this year's CED event was incredibly substantive with a plethora of smart, well-connected industry veterans in addition to innovators with up-and-coming technologies and promising young startups. The veterans -- who I either already knew or identified as such by their age and attire -- walked the hallways and exhibit room with their heads up, smiles on their faces, and right hands free, ready for a welcoming handshake. A surprisingly high number of the younger attendees (young to me is under 30) were almost constantly looking at their smartphones, many times while walking. In a couple of cases, I saw some in the younger crowd walk right by well-known, influential veterans who were standing by themselves, missing a prime opportunity to make inroads into a constantly evolving, competitive marketplace.

I popped into one presentation and found a seat, introducing myself to the man already seated next to me, exchanging business cards and pleasantries. A woman came and sat in front of us, turning around and doing the same thing to both me and my neighbor. As it turns out, the woman was with a company I will be writing about on CarolinaTechNews, while the man is a terrific resource for some of my PR clients. A couple minutes later, a young 20-something man came and sat next to me, looking at his mobile device as he dumped his bag at his feet and sat down, then proceeded to scroll through some article or email or something for the next five minutes as people continued filing in. I turned my head as he sat down, smiled, and patiently waited for him to look up or otherwise acknowledge me, the people in front of him, or the person who sat down next to him. Nothing. The presentation started, and the young man continued to read his phone. I can't say how often he looked up, as I was engaged with the talk going on, but I can say that when we got up to leave he was still on his device.

To recap this particular instance, I'll be writing about that woman's company, giving her some free publicity and providing my CarolinaTechNews readers with interesting insight on an up-and-coming company, and the man I met might get some business out of my PR clients I am going to refer him to. Beyond that, perhaps both of their companies may need some PR help from me in the future. But the young man glued to his phone? Who knows what venture capitalist, vendor resource, mentor, or potential partner he missed by simply not engaging the people around him.

Individuals walking the hallways and sitting in on lectures weren't the only ones hitting home runs and striking out with interpersonal communication. People seated at sponsor booths and even in the CED Innovation Room exhibited the good and the bad. As I walked the Innovation Room, there were many people either standing at their table or in front of it, greeting visitors, interacting, making interpersonal connections. For my part, these were the people I was interacting with, and many will be featured in a series of upcoming CarolinaTechNews articles. A smaller proportion of the people manning these tables of startups, but still a noticeable amount, were sitting in chairs, reading their smartphones as potential customers, investors, and news media strolled by. In one instance, I approached a company that looked interesting, and the young lady at the table was on her smartphone. I presented a greeting, and she responded by holding up her hand with index finger extended as she continued reading her phone. As I stood there waiting, an industry veteran who I knew approached me and engaged me in conversation, and I ended-up talking with him and not the woman at the table.

This same type of scenario was present at a handful of sponsor tables which is bad news for sponsors who were paying people to try and drum-up business at this captured market of life science movers and shakers.

According to 2015 numbers from the Pew Research Center, 64 percent of American adults now own a smartphone of some kind, up from 35 percent in the spring of 2011. No doubt, these devices are helping business people stay connected with each other and customers, but they are also having negative impacts on interpersonal communication.

The long and short of it is, when you are paying money to participate in a major tradeshow or conference, and are looking to make connections with potential stakeholders, turn off your mobile device or commit to checking it at the top and bottom of each hour, preferably off to the side or otherwise out of the main flow of foot traffic.

The news and information you'll miss on your screen will pale in comparison to the opportunities you'll gain from the people you're there to meet.

David D. Menzies is a Raleigh-based tech blogger and PR consultant.