Wednesday, May 30, 2018

New Networking At Association Events

Surveys show that people still attend conferences for the "Networking Opportunities".  Even in our social media crazed world, there is still a desire to meet people face to face and establish professional connections.

Yet many events fall short of their potential.  Bringing the best and brightest from any industry together at an association annual meeting should in itself be ideal for networking, but even with the desire to connect, too often people do not really meet others.

Some hang out with their co-workers and other close friends, but worse are all the people who are all alone at the event, and only superficially engage.  The worst part is that many people feel lonely even in the crowd. 

A 2017 article in the Harvard Business Journal by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, "Work and the Epidemic of Loneliness", chronicles the problems that loneliness causes in the workplace.  Conferences are no different.  Muthry says "Happy hours, coffee breaks, and team-building exercises are designed to build connections between colleagues, but do they really help people develop deep relationships?"  Not so much, and not at industry meetings either.

If one of the purpose of a conference is to really help people connect, we must change up how we are setting up all aspects of the event. An open bar is not the answer to getting people to connect.  Being aware of cliques and thinking about those people who may feel invisible even while surrounded by others.

One quick change that can have immediate impact is how we ask speakers to engage.  A celebrity speaker who talks for 45 minutes and is shuttled out of the building by their handlers is not the future of engaging multi-day events.  People seek a peer-to-peer connection with those who present. If your speakers best skill is getting to the airport 30 minutes after leaving the stage, it is time to rethink the purpose of the keynote.

Additionally, shorter talks are not helping with engagement. Ever since the explosion of the TED and TEDx conferences there has been a push to shorten the time given to speakers.  It has been assumed that people prefer short presentations, but that leaves no time for audience interactions.  A speaker who has time to share data and stories while also creating an interactive environment is a way to get people talking. 

Associations should incorporate speakers as partners in their conference. The speakers (both main stage and breakout presenters) have a unique ability to get people to connect.  Shared experiences are how relationships are forged, and all presentations must have a networking component built into the talk and the speaker should have "office hours" after their speech so they can go deeper with groups of attendees who are interested in this type of conversation. 

Engagement is not saying "turn to your neighbor", but instead creating a culture of talking to others throughout the whole event.  Speakers should be active at the conference at least for the day they speak. When they are visible and actively engaged, they are leading by example.  Getting people comfortable with sharing is the key.

To create new networking at association events, there needs to be discussions about the purpose bringing people together from the first planning meeting.  If you make networking a second tier priority, you will have second tier results.

Have A Great Day

thom singer

****Thom Singer is a keynote speaker and professional master of ceremonies.