Friday, January 13, 2012

"Flash Culture" - How To Create A Mini-Society At Your Conference

When it is done right a conference becomes a "mini-society" that extends far beyond the physical event.  The people who come together for an industry meeting, a users conference, or an association annual convention share a variety of experiences that bond them together.  Humans are experiential beings, and it is through these mutually occurring encounters that we go beyond the surface exchange of pleasantries and build relationships.

"Flash Mobs" have become all the rage the last several years.  Most have seen the planned take overs of shopping mall food courts by singing and dancing groups that surprise and captivate an audience.  I have attended several conferences that have even had "flash mob" performances in their ballroom gatherings.  But creating a "flash culture" goes beyond a single performance.  A culture is more than just something to witness, but is instead a series of patterns and learned behaviors that impact everyone involved.  

In the greater society culture can be takes shape overall or in smaller sub-sets over an extended period of time.  Rarely is a legitimate culture manufactured, but it can be guided by the adherence to or breaking of accepted rules of behavior.  At a two or three day event there is limited time, and if left to chance it can be hard to allow any cultural norms to materialize.  However, if forced onto the participants, there can also be a resistance.

To create a culture at an event there must be a dialogue that exists before, during and after the conference. In my role as "The Conference Catalyst" I tackle one aspect of the "mini-society" which is the desire for attendees to network.  Across industry lines a main reason stated for attending conferences, trade shows, seminars and other meetings is for the "networking opportunities", yet once they arrive..... most people stink at making the type of connections they desire.

While networking is only one facet of the greater culture, it can spur the speed at which the other threads of the whole experience are spread.  Once people are engaged with each other they will peel back the layers of the onion and hold deeper and more meaningful conversations about the learning, trends, and best practices. Getting people excited about one another can ignite the whole experience.

When the presentations, both keynotes and breakout sessions, at an event are the right mix of information and inspiration you will find it effecting the language spoken in the hallways.  The right speakers have the ability to set the tone for the whole meeting.  While a giant emphasis is put on the quality of the information (which is important), someone who is brilliant without speaking skills can murder the mood.  This is why the selection of speakers is paramount to the success of an event.  A series of average presentations will leave hole in the energy level of the group.  Just because someone is smart or has done something cool is not reason enough to put them on stage.  

An additional consideration is about how active the presenters are with the members of the society.  Do they arrive and leave directly around their time to speak?  Most participants enjoy talking with the speakers, or at least like it when they see them actively engaged in the meeting festivities.  There is often a disconnect between the presenters and the audience, which can cause a feeling that there are different levels of importance in a society.  As part of the vetting process organizers should talking with speakers in advance about how they will participate in the conference (if not for the whole time, at least the day of their program). 

The venue also leaves an impression on the whole culture.  From the enthusiasm of the staff to the decor of the facility (and the decorations) there is an aesthetic impact on the mood.  The size and the layout of the main room, and the other common areas, will encourage or discourage human to human interactions.  The music and lighting also can also raise or lower the excitement of each person.  The quality of the coffee, snacks, and meals also matter. 

Vendors and sponsors can often feel like outsiders at many large events and their disengagement is felt by everyone.  While they pay large sums of money to exhibit, some limit their own access to the overall conference.  Vendors should have their whole team attend all "main stage" presentations, as it is that shared experience that will make them an equal part of the "mini-society".  Too often they utilize this time to make calls, sleep in, or otherwise occupy their time.  However, when they are in the same room participating with all attendees it creates much better conversations when attendees come to their booths.  "What did you think of that speaker today?" is a more engaging question than "how is the show going for you?".

Vendors need to be educated not to pounce on attendees with hard pitches or hard sell tactics.  Nobody comes to a conference to be cornered by sales people.  They do come to meet and have conversations with interesting people.  Those who listen and learn find better conversations while present and more access once the event is over.

There are many intangible actions that take place in creating a culture, and therefore event organizers must put into place online and offline opportunities for the society to continue after everyone returns home.  Getting people to participate is difficult if they did not feel the inspiration while at the conference.  Online groups and communities with ongoing discussions and education must be a year round project, and must provide legitimate value.  Just having a LinkedIn Group, a Facebook Page, or a couple of YouTube videos is not the cultivation of community.  There must be a series of people assigned to leading these efforts.  Nobody can force something to go viral, but if your event is an "Industry Happening", then both those who were there live, and those who were not, will want to continue their participation.

Time is limited to create a "Flash Culture", but when it happens.... everyone knows it.

Have A Great Day.

thom singer

Thom Singer is known as "The Conference Catalyst". He works with meeting planners and conference organizers to set the tone for a meeting. His presentations educate, inspire and motivate attendees to engage deeper in the event and make meaningful connections.

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