Is your organization creating an “atmosphere of connectedness” that stimulates “serendipitous encounters, with other people and also with new ideas?”
I recently read a CSAE article by Ida Shessel, B.Sc., M.Ed. -- Helping Your Members Become Part of the Inner Circle -- in which she asks: “What is it that creates or doesn’t create a feeling of connectedness for members?” and wonders why she has “felt connected, part of the inner circle … to some groups and not to others?” The answer, Shessel suggests, lies in the third of the “three I’s” that members are looking for from their Association: Information, Inspiration, and Interaction… Your attendees are also looking for connections to other people… and the quality of that interaction [is the key] to becoming part of the inner circle of your organization.”
But Shessel cautions that while your members want to interact, you can’t assume they know how to interact effectively – you need to help them make good connections. She offers “10 tips for behind-the-scenes planning that will create a “network-friendly” culture and ensure people get the interaction they’re looking for.” Here’s an overview of Shessel’s 10 creative ideas that you can apply to help spark connections and networking at your membership meetings and events:
- Plan Pre-Event Preparation: Put articles and tip sheets on “networking know-how” in your magazine, newsletter, and convention packets.
- Put Networking Know-How in the Spotlight: Give attendees at your events the rules and tools for making networking an art, not an accident. Schedule a keynote or opening session that shows attendees how to make the most of the meeting.
- Make Nametags Novel: Print the first name as LARGE as you possibly can. As a conversation starter, add a colored ribbon or sticker to designate “first timer” or “award winner.”
- Light a Fire Under the Hospitality Team: Have your association leaders, staff, and volunteers attend events. Train them to be great greeters! Have them set the tone by welcoming people at mixers and sessions.
- Maximize the Mix & Mingle: Include some short, structured one-on-one or small group activities to encourage mixing and meeting. Choose an upbeat, energetic, well-known person to lead the session.
- Spark Up Your Speakers: Remind speakers and trainers that attendees want to get to know each other as well as listen to experts. Suggest that speakers invite everyone who asks a question at their session to first give their name and possibly one other piece of information.
- Make the Most of the Meals Table talk isn’t easy when the room is noisy and the tables are set for 8 or 10. Work with the hotel on noise control and request smaller round tables of 4 or 6 whenever possible.
- Manage the Music: Use music to energize or entertain, but don’t let it compete with conversations.
- Foster Follow-Up: Be bold about suggesting how people can follow up and stay in touch after a meeting. Give them reasons and tools (e.g. postcards, chat rooms, list serves) to stay in touch.
- Find Out With a Focus Group: Don’t just wonder how things are going. Interview members at breakfast focus groups ... send out e-surveys to gather opinions to questions
An unrelated guest post on the Conference Basics blog also offered some insight into the type of atmosphere that organizations should strive to create at conferences and other events. In How to Stimulate Serendipity in Conferences (And other Events), guest blogger Ana Silva suggests that “the notion that serendipity [the art of looking for something and ending up finding something else, at times more valuable than the thing you were looking for] can be stimulated or facilitated is increasingly cited by authors and futurists.” By way of example, she quotes from the book The Power of Pull, (by John Hagel III, John Seely Brown and Lang Davison) which is aptly subtitled: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can set Big Things in Motion. The book’s authors suggest that “serendipity can be shaped: We can make choices that will increase our ability to attract people and resources to us that we never knew existed, leading to serendipitous encounters that prove enormously valuable”.
Silva notes that “conferences and other events can be great places for increasing our probability of engaging in serendipitous encounters, with other people and also with new ideas, especially those in emerging arenas that attract a diverse set of participants and speakers.” She suggests that meeting organizers should try to “design a conference experience that increases the possibility of serendipity happening,” and offers ideas such as the following (and much more):
- Curate your audience: try as much as possible to appeal to a diverse crowd of attendees … but also the “right” attendees. More than half of the value that your event will be providing comes from the new connections born during breaks and networking time.
- Use Twitter as a serendipity engine: conversations on Twitter before, during and after your event can be a valid channel to connect with other community members ... so make sure you have an “official” Twitter hashtag and that it’s present in all your communications.
- Design the physical space to favor encounters: provide coffee areas that are comfortable and attractive for people to hang out, not too spacious, not too small ...
- Facilitate introductions: not everyone is a natural born networker. Sometimes having a searchable database of the attendees or suggesting 10 people to meet at the event ... can kickstart encounters. The best introductions though are made by humans.
- Help break the ice: if the group is small enough consider changing the display of the room and having everyone presenting themselves. If this is not possible, simply imagine some ice breaking exercise that helps put people more at ease.
Silva’s post also offers ideas for attendees to further promote serendipitous events.
As Ida Shessel suggests at the end of her CSAE article, when you find ways “to help members become part of the inner circle of your organization…they’ll come back to your events year after year; recommend your association and events to others [and] bring in new members."
Photo source: US National Archives Flickr Photostream