Autreat signal badges

I was thinking some more about how often we miss the opportunity to help the people we bring together connect with each other.  Then I heard about Autreat, a a conference run by and for people with autism.  As one of the many things they do to make the conference helpful and productive for participants, the organizers give them the option to wear red/yellow/green “Interaction Signal Badges.”

Red = I do not want anyone to approach or interact with me.  You can reply to questions I ask you but that’s it.

Yellow = I will interact with people I already know but not with unfamiliar people (“we’ve met online” = unfamiliar)

Green = I’m interested in interacting but I find it difficult to initiate interaction, so I’d be happy if others initiate interaction with me

The badge is just one of a zillion oft-overlooked elements we control when we bring people together, one of the things we could pay attention to if we really want to help people feel comfortable and create the kinds of connections they’d like to create.  The TED conference has massive badges with names printed in 32-point (I think) font, giant pictures, and “talk to me about” conversation starters.  Other great conferences go in the opposite direction, inviting a tiny number of attendees, having no one wear a nametag, and getting the social juices flowing with singing and poetry and time at the pub late into the night.

The problem with most conferences is that they do none of these things.  The organizers act as if putting on a conference involves packing the agenda with high-profile (often concurrent!) speakers and having people sit through those talks, with opportunity to randomly “network” in huge, personality-free reception halls.  The organizers spend 98% of time on the “program” and 2% of time on the steps (big and small) that would make it twice (or 10 times) as likely that people would interact.

Susan Cain recently reminded the world that there’s nothing particularly normal or special about being extroverted and about feeling totally comfortable in a massive crowd of folks and striking up new conversations.  So here’s a hint to people who bring people together: almost everyone would rather have more substantive, productive and fun conversations with almost everyone else, and almost everyone finds it difficult to start brand new conversations.  Help them!

TED and introverts part 2: Structures or Incentives

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
  • Etc.

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.

How introverts can work the room

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:

  1. Walk over to folks who I know a little bit
  2. Walk over to someone I know pretty well
  3. Walk over to a close colleague or friend
  4. Go get some food and likely strike up a conversation with someone on line
  5. Walk up to a group of total strangers and introduce myself
  6. 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).