I just got back from the TED conference, which always pushes my thinking and my sense of possibility. One of the many exceptional things about TED is that it is organized to create ample opportunities for attendees to spend time together in substantive conversation. This is a lot of the reason that people keep showing up every year (after all, the talks are going to be available online), and while nothing can compare to the supercharged power of TED talks to reach literally millions of people in a heartbeat, I’m sure just as much remarkable stuff happens due to conversations that happen at the conference.
So what do you do when presented with a 90 minute break at TED? How do you actually meet remarkable people?
Susan Cain’s great TED talk on introverts at this year’s TED (it’s already online and has been seem more than a half million times) reminds us that the correlation between intelligence/insight/skill/leadership and the willingness to introduce yourself to total strangers is, according to her, zero. But I also know that a lot of introverts manage to talk to a lot of people at TED.
(Full disclosure: I consider myself mostly extroverted with some introvert lurking in the wings – I err to the side of extrovert, especially when among people I know well, but when faced with the choice between a cocktail party of people I’ve never met and curling up with a good book….well, the book is looking pretty nice.)
Here’s my visualization of what it feels like at the start of a 90 minute break at TED. I’m the red dot, the black dots are people, and the blue circles around people are their “gravitational pull” – namely, people I know best / who know me best (whether or not we intend to have a conversation) have a larger gravitational field, meaning I’m more likely to start up a conversation with them – and they are with me – with little effort or social risk.
Put another way, absent a clear plan you’re most likely to spend all your time with the people you know best / who know you best – unless you’re a strong introvert, in which case you’ll be hiding in a corner.
To explain the graphic, my options are:
- Walk over to folks who I know a little bit
- Walk over to someone I know pretty well
- Walk over to a close colleague or friend
- Go get some food and likely strike up a conversation with someone on line
- Walk up to a group of total strangers and introduce myself
- Hide in a corner (aka “stare at my iPhone”)
If you’re an introvert or if these sorts of situations are scary, this schematic might be useful because it presents a lot of options that are less terrifying than introducing yourself to total strangers (option 5). While that is a great skill to cultivate, of the six options presented here it is clearly the most difficult to pull off and the one you’re likely to avoid completely. Similarly, path 3 (head straight towards/get pulled towards someone you know really well) is something to be conscious about – no doubt you are being social and folks you know will introduce you to folks they know, but it’s an approach that’s bound to limit your opportunity to meet new, interesting people: if you do just this, you’ll probably spend nearly all of your time with the 5 people you know best.
So if your goal is to meet at least some new people and you’re not a big extrovert, paths 1, 2 and 4 all present themselves as viable options, with a dash of path 3 every now and again as long as you’re being deliberate about it.
(And once you do start up a conversation with people you don’t know well, spend your energy asking them questions and actually listening to their answers. You don’t have to instantly say something brilliant nor should you spend all your mental cycles worrying about what to say next. Really listen.)
Finally, absent from the diagram (hard to represent visually) is another great option: planning in advance who you want to meet with and making a point of meeting them, either opportunistically or by reaching out before the conference.
If you do find big crowds with lots of expected mingling to be terrifying but something you’d like to improve on, experiment with some of the easier paths, working your way up in terms of “degree of difficulty.” With success, your fears will abate and the idea of walking up to a total stranger will eventually seem like something you can pull off (hint: they don’t bite).