6 Ways to Make Your Best Impression in Front of Trade Show Prospects

These 6 suggestions, culled from the experiences of CEOs and other leaders at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit in January, show both what to do and what not to do, and can help CEOs make their best impression in a short amount of time.

1. Find ways to overcome size disadvantages. It’s critical to articulate how your product will disrupt the way things are being done today. Local Motors, a startup outfit in 3D printing, wanted to level the playing field with traditional auto manufacturers, so it wowed the auto show audience by printing an entire car in 44 hours on the show floor.

“Some companies are good at reinvesting in employees, but it’s about helping them become better employees.”

In the future, says Local Motors’ chief strategy officer Justin Fishkin, “Consumers will be able to walk into a store, go up to a screen, choose one of nine or 10 unibodies, choose powertrains that we’ll buy from other manufacturers, choose wheels and tires and colors, and we’ll print it while you wait or you can come back for it the next day.”

2. Position yourself as a thought leader by making predictions. Fiat Chrysler CEO Sergio Marchionne had the temerity to suggest that automakers are going to want to get some relief from western regulators in stiff upcoming mileage standards, because cheaper gasoline is skewing companies’ “average fuel economy” downward as consumers flock to larger vehicles. His remarks were heavily reported around the world.

3. Avoid scripted humor in presentations. Not every CEO is funny, and having a scripted joke doesn’t mean it will sound authentic or humorous. Lexus Division General Manager Jack Bracken learned that lesson the hard way when, during his presentation to the press, he showed a photo of a logo of the company’s new “F” racing platform on his left forearm. “I know what you think,” he winked. “It’s fake.” There was no response.

4. Make sure your criticisms can be backed up with fact. At a time when gasoline was $1.70 a gallon in Detroit and auto manufacturers nationwide were reporting higher interest in larger vehicles as a result, Tesla CEO Elon Musk chided his peers for not embracing all-electric vehicles heartily enough. His timing was off and his comments fell flat.

5. Don’t Ignore what you said last year. Over the last few years, Stefan Sommer, CEO of Germany-based automotive supplier ZF, has used the Detroit Auto Show to tout the marketplace progress of an industry-leading 9-speed transmission, which was picked up by brands including Chrysler and Land Rover. But at this year’s presentation, he made no mention of the vaunted 9-speed, which was supposed to be key to the company’s future. Sommer chose instead to concentrate on the earlier-technology 8-speed transmission and its popularity. Further digging revealed that ZF has been disappointed in its sales. He only addressed it at the end of his presentation when a journalist pressed.

6. Take advantage of the big stage. After stepping into Alan Mulally’s big shoes, Mark Fields, the new CEO of Ford, gave the keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show. At the National Auto Show, he took advantage of his time with a targeted audience to give a recruitment pitch to college engineering students on the benefits of working for Ford.

Mary Barra, CEO of GM, used the large venue to get everyone’s mind off the negativity of 2014 by placed herself prominently in new-product introductions for both Buick and Chevrolet, while also hobnobbing with U.S. senators.

CEOs are, by far, the most effective salespeople for their brands. These suggestions can help leaders garner trust and more quickly build relationships on the road.

Dale Buss :Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other business publications. He lives in Michigan.