Creating tradeshow displays is one of the toughest challenges that creative firms face. But if done right, they can be showstoppers. Here's why they are so tough—and what you can do to make them work.

Tradeshows are mazes. People come in, get lost, spin around and (with a little luck) find what they are looking for (mostly, cool free stuff!).

A bird's-eye view of a tradeshow looks a lot like a grocery store, except instead of shelves and cereal boxes there are aisles and tradeshow displays. Your goal is to get the right people to stop and look at your "cereal box."

Think about the last show you attended. How many of the displays stick in your mind? How many stopped you, or at least slowed you down? Not many? OK, follow these rules and make it happen.

Rule #1: Tradeshow Displays Don't Sell Stuff

A common misconception is that tradeshow displays sell stuff. They don't. The job of the display is to make people stop so that you can sell stuff. If you're counting on the display to do your job, you're asking it to do the wrong thing.

No big explanation here. Just remember that the only job of the display is to be a stop sign, or at least a speed bump.

Rule #2: Sucker Punches Work

If you really want their attention, hit 'em when, where and how they least expect. That means that as people are strolling down the aisle you have to show them something so unique, so compelling and so to-the-point that they will have no choice but to slow down or stop.

That means you have to do more than think "outside the box." (I hate that phrase.) You have to throw the box away and ask a simple question: "What's going to make them stop as ask you to tell them about your company?"

Now, the question is, Do you have the guts to do it? If you do, you're going to blow everyone else out of the water because, quite simply, most of your competition will be just like the rest of the competition.

Tradeshow sucker punches don't have to be offensive or goofy. They just need to make people stop. Big. Bold. Unexpected. Powerful. Relevant. Compelling.

Rule #3: Tradeshow Displays Are Not Brochures

Brochures have lots of words. People get them and read them when they want, where they want, for as long as they want. Tradeshow displays are just the opposite. People can't take them home. They only see them where they are. And they will not spend time with them.

Think of tradeshow displays as cereal boxes. All lined up on the shelves (aisles) and all looking much the same. The relative viewing size of a tradeshow display viewed from 15 feet away is about the same as a cereal box viewed two feet away.

Imagine that the fronts of cereal boxes were just a listing of the ingredients. Now that would be just plain boring and nobody would ever, ever read them.

When I get orders for tradeshow displays, they are usually accompanied by a list of bullet points that would choke a horse. I got one list that had over 800 words. Trust me on this one: no matter how impressed you might be with your "ingredients," people won't see them, let alone read them.

The single toughest challenge in creating great tradeshow display is eliminating 97% of the words.

Anybody can ramble on forever. The trick is delivering a compelling five-word message. Tougher yet: a one-word message. Accomplish this, and you're way ahead of the competition.

You have about two seconds to make your impression and stop traffic.

Imagine a road sign that says:

  • Based on historical data and an analysis of trends, there is reason to believe that there may be additional traffic approaching the same location that you are about to enter.

  • The weight, velocity and direction of travel of your vehicle, combined with the weight, velocity and direction of travel of the additional traffic, should be calculated to determine the potential risk involved if all vehicles meet at the same place at the same time.

  • If you conclude that the risk involved by proceeding at your current rate of speed and direction of travel is greater that the benefit of maintaining your present velocity and course, procedures should be taken to alter your current course or velocity.

  • Failure to perform these calculations and the subsequent required changes may result in bending, breaking and partial or compete destruction of the vehicle that you now occupy as well as bending, breaking and partial or complete destruction of your sweet little butt.

Now imagine a road sign that says "Stop."

Which do you think is more effective? Tradeshow displays are road signs. Get to the point.

Now, if you insist on listing all your bullet points, put them someplace other than on the main display. There are plenty of options available for freestanding signs that allow you to go nuts (yup, nuts) with all your bullet points.

Rule # 4: Clarity Versus Clutter

You've seen them—tradeshow displays that look like garage sales: A canvas banner here, a glossy photo there, a display panel that doesn't match anything else on the display, and what seems to be every piece of art the exhibitor has collected since 1937.

If you want to attract attention, you have to be clear: a clean, dynamic, organized display that has a clear message—that you are clean, dynamic and organized.

On the other hand, disorganized, cluttered, dull displays with mixed messages tell the viewer that you might not be able to dress yourself, let alone be able to serve your customers.

Rule # 5: Be Different. Really Different (Free Trick Enclosed)

This is directly related to Rule #2 (sucker punches work), but it needs to be repeated.

People in the same business tend to think alike. Technology companies think about technology. Insurance companies think like… well, I guess I'm not sure what they think like. You get the point. The result is that, except for the logos, they also tend to look alike at tradeshows.

Here's a little trick: first, put two columns on a sheet of paper; title the left column "My Display"; title the right column "Their Displays."

Under "My Display," list all the things that you think you might put on your tradeshow display. (Photos, graphics, charts, words, small furry animals, etc.) Then, under "Their Displays," list of all the things you think your competitors will put on their displays.

Now, cross everything off your list that appears on their list. You can't use them. Period.

What's left? "Different. Really Different." (If your list is now empty, that's a good thing. You just started on that winding road to creativity.)

Sound too simple? The procedure is very simple. Having the guts to do it? Priceless.

A Final Note…

Designers who really know what they are doing understand the art, the science and the psychology of tradeshows. Traffic patterns, space utilization, color, eye movement, fonts and language all work together to make or break your display.

Even if you increase the effectiveness of your display by a mere 5%, you're talking with 50 more prospects for every thousand people who see your display. It's a small investment when you consider that it only takes one good new customer to turn your next show from an expense to a profit.

How much does it cost to have a pro design your next display? It's probably less than you think. How much does it cost not to? Way more than you want to know.

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Jared McCarthy is the proprietor of McCarthy Creative. For more information, visit