Commenting on my post last week about TED and how introverts can work the room, Joey Katona asked what incentives TED creates to get people to socialize and network.
The answer is: none.
What they create are structures that facilitate social interaction – everything from the composition of the attendees, the physical space, the food provided, the agenda, everything.
Let me give a concrete counter-example of another conference with equally impressive attendees. The amount of socializing that occurred (especially between people who didn’t already know each other) was very low, and it was because of the physical space: traditional hotel ballrooms in a giant hotel.
The vastness of the “not in the conference hall” space resulted in people naturally dispersing at every break; there weren’t many chairs or food in the hallway so it wasn’t easy to find a comfortable way to talk; the amount of unprogrammed time was limited; and on and on.
We are naturally social creatures whose behavior is hugely influenced by our physical environment.
If you want to create spontaneous and productive socialization at a conference, the first step is to actually decide that doing this is one of your goals. That means that you spend as much time and energy thinking about the “non-programmed” time as you do about the program (the speakers, the official program, everything that your conference appears to be about).
By way of example, some of the zillions of structures that TED puts in place to make socializing more likely:
- Significant non-programmed time for socialization
- Numerous places to get food during breaks, so that groups sizes are manageable and you don’t wait too long for food (but you talk a bit while you’re waiting on line)
- At least 12 “social spaces” designed for sitting and talking….
- ….with simulcast of the main stage event so that you can keep on talking if you’re having a great conversation
- Lots of nooks and crannies to explore, sponsored by various companies, where you’re likely to find someone else interested in something you’re interested in (even if that’s paddleball)
- Giant name tags with pictures, your name, and three things to “talk to me about…”
- An out-of-this-world, curated audience, resulting in huge positive feedback every time you meet someone new – because folks are so amazing
Your conference doesn’t have the resources that TED does, but that doesn’t matter. The moment you decide that getting people to talk to each other is important you’ll start seeing things differently. Then it’s up to you to have fun with the physical environment, how you use time, the food you serve, the music you play, what you do with the lights….everything really.
You won’t get it right the first time but have 10 attendees you love and care about and 10 young people on your staff spend the whole conference watching how people do and don’t interact, what spaces and what time blocs worked and didn’t, and debrief that after the conference. You’ll be amazed what you discover.