We’re meeting in person again! And everyone seems to be delighted. Conferences have a special buzz right now that helps make them successful.
Like most things, however, the buzz will fade over time unless we make the excitement and connection real in future meetings, too. Today we’re glad to be together. Tomorrow we’ll need to craft an environment that promotes positive experiences like the ones we’re having now.
Here are two ideas for creating energy, excitement, and connection at your next meeting:
- Give everyone permission to network.
I know networking is a major part of any event, but event organizers can make it easier and create a collaborative environment with little planning.
At an event several years ago, the keynote speaker talked about the importance of meeting new people and explicitly gave everyone instructions to share their business cards generously during the conference. His comments gave attendees permission to be open to new connections and lightened the mood of the event.
You wouldn’t think such a simple instruction would make a big difference, but this one did. Conference attendees immediately started looking at each other as new friends, rather than as strangers they were required to approach.
The speaker then announced a contest – whoever collected the most business cards would win a prize at the final session of the event. People in the session started exchanging cards immediately, and the conversation level in the room increased dramatically as they greeted the people sitting at their table. No table monitors needed.
Several times later in the event, the person handling announcements and “housekeeping” details reinforced the speaker’s “permission to network.” For those who attended the keynote, the announcements were a reminder to keep meeting new people, and for those who hadn’t attended the keynote, the reminders helped get them into the networking spirit.
This simple announcement and contest changed the nature of the conference. Attendees used “permission to network” as their opening topic of conversation, making initial interactions easier. People greeted each other in the hallways. They introduced themselves in sessions and started conversations. Social events were livelier. A simple challenge helped make this conference outstanding because of its elevated networking.
This is just one example of highlighting a conference feature so that everyone benefits. You can treat other conference elements in similar ways. Use these steps:
o Examine the goals of your next conference.
o Identify “hidden-in-plain-sight” elements (like networking)
o Design ways to introduce them to the conference.
o Remember that your speakers may be able to help you as you plan.
- Create special projects that encourage a wide range of participation.
Associations often incorporate charity events into their conferences. Raising money from conference participants for a specific charity is common, as are events before and after the conference itself. These events vary in popularity but provide a chance for participants to meet each other in a new setting. What might happen if you planned collaborative events throughout the conference? Here’s one example:
The ASAE Great Ideas Conference is known for experimenting with instructional design, and speakers are encouraged to abandon the “lecture and PowerPoint” model for ones that are more interactive. Several years ago, one of the leadership sessions focused on cooking.
The hotel provided equipment to stock four rudimentary kitchens – two-burner hot plates, pans, bowls, whisks, and other basic tools. They also provided bulk ingredients that were stored in the “pantry,” which was a table in the center of the room.
Four teams of eight people each had to use a provided recipe to cook a three-course lunch for another team, using only the equipment and ingredients in the room. Sounds simple, right?
This, however, was a chance to learn leadership skills by doing. The session leader and the hotel chef purposely built in some obstacles to the session because no project ever enjoys completely smooth sailing. Here’s how they challenged the teams:
o The recipe was one of the chef’s gourmet recipes, so not necessarily easy. It required cooking skills. Projects often require skills we haven’t quite mastered.
o The recipe was designed to feed 10 people, not eight. If the teams didn’t read thoroughly, they would not adjust the recipe for fewer people. When has anyone received perfect instructions when leading a project?
o The “pantry” held exactly enough ingredients for the four teams. If a team took more than their share because they were cooking for 10, another team wouldn’t have enough for their preparation. When has every department in an association had more than enough resources? Association teams often must share.
o Before the conference, the session leader had intentionally created teams of strangers. She put people from the same company on different teams. She assigned participants to the teams by their titles so that each team represented a variety of roles. No team contained exclusively entry-level members, mid-level managers, or those in senior management. How often do we work with a variety of colleagues, both senior and junior to our position?
o Team members were assigned roles that they might have in a commercial kitchen – chef, sous chef, line cook, etc. – but with a twist. Senior management members were assigned low-level jobs in the kitchen, meaning they probably wouldn’t be making executive decisions during the session. Mid-level and entry-level members, however, were assigned the top roles in the kitchen. More than likely, they would make final decisions about how the meal was prepared. This was an opportunity to test how you interact with other team members.
o The teams were given a time limit because all projects have deadlines.
The teams went to work, using their kitchen roles as the basis of their interactions. All four teams prepared edible lunches and served them to another team. After lunch, the teams evaluated their meals – both the ones they had prepared and the ones they had eaten.
Then they evaluated how they had functioned as a team. They discussed the challenges of working in their new roles, as well as the issues they had encountered. The discussion could have continued most of the afternoon.
This session was difficult to arrange and would not have been possible without the cooperation of the hotel and the chef. The chef had initially promised 15 minutes to the session to discuss the cooking techniques teams had to master, but he stayed for the entire session. It was effective, but you might not have ASAE’s resources for a similar effort. Fortunately, you can use this idea as the basis of sessions more suited to your association.
How to Adapt Ideas to Suit Your Association
I’ve outlined two ideas to help encourage energy and enthusiasm at your next event – giving attendees permission to network and creating sessions that require them to interact with each other to accomplish a goal. These examples might not be suitable for your conference, but you can adapt their elements to create experiences that would be suitable.
Your association’s mission and your conference goals will help you identify themes that would strengthen the conference overall. Once you have the themes identified, you can brainstorm ways to highlight those elements throughout the conference.
I encourage you to challenge your speakers to provide participatory sessions. People learn more by doing than they do by listening and working together allows participants to get to know each other in new settings.
We can (and should) extend the goodwill we’re currently enjoying at our conferences. With a little planning, we can make conferences in the future just as exciting and enjoyable.
Emma is the Marketing Manager at Rhythm. When she's not thinking about all things content-related, you can find her traveling or shooting 35 mm film.