Monday, August 20, 2012

Ice-Breaker Games and Free Shrimp Do NOT Create Community

When I wrote about "How an Icebreaker Can Kill Your Business Meeting" I discussed that many business professionals do not want to play silly games.  They are not really excited to get their card signed by every vendor, nor do they want to share their secret fear of "noodling".

The response was interesting, as it put some people on the defensive for icebreakers.  Getting people to step out of their comfort zone and talk to others is paramount to success at conferences, trade shows, conventions and seminars - but too often organizers insert icebreaker activity without any context to their purpose.  If an ice-breaker sits as a random stand-alone I argue that it is not usually effective.

(*Note: I did not say all "Icebreakers" are bad... just that many are silly and can turn-off then engagement with some people in attendance).

The same problem exists with networking happy hours.  People say they want to network... but free booze and peel-and-eat shrimp alone are not enough to get conference attendees to engage in conversations without the context of the purpose of bringing people together to have meaningful interactions.

I often have conversations with meeting professionals and association executives about how to create a networking culture at an event.  Too many attendees spend all their time at breaks on their phones and they always are clustered with their co-workers and their friends.  However, when people do break free and engage they always report that their "hallway conversations" were the most powerful moments of their attendee experience.

But without a plan for a networking culture, and until you have earned the "buy-in" from the participants, they will not change the standard conference behavior.  Telling people to "put their phones away" only gets resentment and most wont do it anyway.  Treating ice-breakers and social events as a stand alone Check-The-Box activity will get mixed results.  If we want more me must make it happen.

To create a culture you need to engage everyone involved in your event.  The speakers on your program should be educated about your desires to get people talking, and how they structure their interactive programs and their own engagement at your event will have a huge impact.  Ask your speakers if they intend to stay at your conference following their presentation.  You want them to be involved, as attendees like to mix with the speakers.  (Legitimate celebrities, such as Bill Clinton, cannot and will not stay for your event, but others should be asked to be involved for at least the whole day they speak).  Those who "speak and run" may or may not help your cause.

Design alternative learning areas where people can gather and have conversations.  Make these areas inviting, and then spend some time educating your audience about what it is all about and how it will make their conference experience better.  Too often an organization will create a "Learning Lounge" or other unique alternative conference program and then nobody shows up because they failed to promote it in a way that is understood.  Putting a blurb in the program is NOT enough.  Feature the explanation of your special program in your opening session, and not just a mention in the welcome.  Too often these areas are under attended because the organization does not want to really highlight them.  If people do not "get it" they wont come check it out.

(I attended a conference where the organizers said they did not have time in the schedule to promote their alternative learning program, then invested 30 minutes to promote the next year's conference.  Yikes.  Few people went to their unique area, and most people thought the commercial was excessive.  Disconnect!).

What is your catalyst?   Organizers talk about changing the culture at their events, but wanting to create something unique will not make it happen by magic.  There must be an outside element that gets people excited to take ownership of the new direction.  Stir the pot or the contents will get stuck to the bottom!

Think deeper and get lots of people to input ideas all year long.  Be willing to try something new if you really want change.  Champion those who have fresh ideas and make a rule that "just because we did it before does not mean it is always right".

What do you think?

****For a copy of my free eight page special report on creating an atmosphere for better networking at conferences email me at thom (at)

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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