A few weeks ago, while walking to work, I witnessed something fantastic—the beginning of a friendship. While standing on the corner waiting for the light to change, a young woman introduced herself to another young woman. I could tell from their conversation that they had been seeing each other around for a while, but they had not ever met. The light changed and we all crossed the street and they continued to walk together, getting to know each other.
The beginning of a new relationship is not something we usually consciously see. It is often hard to pinpoint exactly when you cross the line from acquaintance to friend. The moment when you go from sitting next to someone to hanging out with them. The time when you move from talking to sharing. It’s not often intentional, but rather serendipitous and left up to chance.
It seems kind of strange doesn’t it, that we would leave things that are so important up to chance more than anything else. Sure, we join meetups and clubs around topics we care about, and maybe we use some kind of app to meet people, but by and large, the people you spend the most time with you probably did not choose to meet. You sit next to them at work, or you traveled together for an event, or you were standing in the same bar line at some reception.
Several of my very closest friends I have met at conferences, mostly by chance. We were seated next to each other in some kind of working session, spent time together at a reception, and we reunited at the next year’s event. But other than someone holding a conference on a topic we mutually cared about, there was no intentional action on anyone’s part to bring us together.
At our events, we mostly leave it up to our attendees to find each other. They have to decide to come. They have to choose their sessions. They pick their seats in the room. They have to be intentional about networking and finding people. We provide the space, but after that, they are really on their own.
I recently finished reading The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker. I highly recommend it for anyone involved with events. In it, Parker talks about the role of the host. When you bring people together you have a responsibility to make sure they connect, and you do this by designing your gathering with intention.
I’ve referred to this in the past as “facilitated networking.” It’s giving attendees tools and hints to help them connect with each other. Simple things like putting “ask me about _____” on a name badge or having hands on activities where people work together to build or create something can go a long way to helping people find their people.
I know sometimes we look at these types of activities as a “nice to have.” It’s a great enhancement to the event and we’ll get to it after we finish planning all of the logistics. But I would argue that for modern day association events, this intentional connection is crucial, if not central to your mission.
Consider this example: A swarm of micro-robots, directed by magnets, can break apart and remove dental biofilm, or plaque, from a tooth. The innovation arose from a cross-disciplinary partnership among dentists, biologists, and engineers. I read that headline and I had to know how these people got connected across their disciplines. Turns out it was just serendipitous. Maybe one faculty member sat next to another at some university reception and they discovered a way to work together.
Now consider this: What if there had been very intentional cross-sharing of ideas and research amongst departments and disciplines? Would this collaboration have come about sooner? What other potential world-changing opportunities are we missing by leaving these types of connections up to chance?
Most associations have a mission that involves improving the world in some way—through research, jobs, infrastructure, inventions, technology, ideas, and more. If we as planners were more intentional in how we get people to connect, could we accelerate the pace of these world-changing ideas?
So, how to do this? Technology is getting better every year with matchmaking apps, but if that’s not in your budget, do it simply. Here are 3 ideas to get you started:
- In your general session room, assign a topic or question to each section, and have people choose their seats by whatever topic most interests them. Designate the dead time before the opening session to conversation with your seatmates about whatever the topics are.
2. Crowdsource the top industry issues from your attendees in advance. Pick the top 5 and assign each a color. As attendees walk into the lunch room, have them pull colored index cards from a hat and then join the corresponding table to discuss that issue.
3. Consider partnering with another relevant organization to hold a convergence session at your event. Intentionally invite people from outside of your core audience who may have interesting ideas to contribute. Run it as a facilitated working group session to discover ideas.
If you aren’t being intentional with how you host your attendees, then you are leaving opportunity on the table. Not just for your attendees to find new friends, but also for your organization to discover new ways to impact the world.