PCA8 - How to create an atmosphere for better networking


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As a follow up to my session at Product Camp 8 (Austin), here is a copy of my 8-page essay on creating a better atmosphere for networking at business events

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PCA8 - How to create an atmosphere for better networking

  1. 1. How to Create an Atmosphere for Better Networking By Thom Singer, The Conference CatalystThe impact from three years of uncertainty in the economy has had a substantialimpact on the meetings industry. Conferences, trade shows, seminars, trainingprograms, and conventions have faced a harder time attracting attendees andsponsors. With corporate budgets under scrutiny those who regularly participate inthese gatherings have had to limit their number of shows, or have been absentaltogether.The days of the “cookie cutter convention” are in the past. It is no longer enoughto simply provide the venue and agenda and let the human-to-human connectionstake care of themselves. People are hungry to attend amazing events, but theplethora of mediocre options has created an entire class of skeptical attendees.Organizers often spend their attention on the aesthetic aspects of the agenda,design, location, etc… without giving enough thought to creating a conferenceculture that will transform the event from common to spectacular.A major reason that is cited for attending business events is “networkingopportunities”, but once they arrive at the conference people fail to instigate thetypes of conversations and interactions that lead to long-term and mutually-beneficial relationships. Humans are experiential beings, and when they areengaged in the experience of attending, it goes beyond just a good event andbecomes one of the great and memorable parts of their year. When this happensthey not only plan to return again the next year, but they tell their co-workers,friends, vendors, customers and everyone else who will listen.Certain events have thrived during the recession years. South by SouthwestInteractive (SXSWi) has doubled in size over the last few years and the TEDConference and TEDx phenomenon exploded during the same time period. Theseconferences, and others, have become “must go” events to their loyal followerswhile others have seen numbers shrink. The experience created before, during andafter the event is paramount to the success. The most memorable are physicalwww.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 1
  2. 2. events that have created a sense of community that goes far beyond those who aresitting in the seats at the location.The use of the internet is part of the success equation that has propelled SXSW andTED, but that is just part of the story. The atmosphere for making connections isreal and energetic. People are happy to be there and they are excited to networkwith the other attendees. Contacts are made and deals are born in the hallways atthe best conferences. When attendees are not engaged they tend to pass the timeon their SmartPhones or back in their hotel rooms on conference calls. The Intangible MattersTracking the return on investment is important for both organizers and those whoattend conferences. Everyone is actively looking to justify their expenses andshow proof of value for money and time invested in the event. But any time youare dealing with people there is an intangible part that cannot be ignored. Youcannot track the power of the culture created at a conference, and the atmospherethat encourages better networking will never be quantified on a spreadsheet. Butthe most successful events never ignore the intangible.I encourage organizers and attendees to create plans to maximize a conference.Knowing ROI is part of this plan, but only seeking that which can be counted isshort sighted. I once shared a taxi from the airport to a resort hotel with anothercouple who were heading the same direction. These nice people were notattending the meeting where I was speaking, but they both had experience in themeetings industry. I have since been in touch with them, and there may beopportunities to speak for their companies in the future. While meeting people in ataxi was never part of my plan, it may prove to be the most profitable part of thetrip if it leads to future business. Had I not been open to jumping into their cab, orhad I been Skyped in to deliver my presentation, I would never have had this (orseveral other) serendipitous encounter.You cannot plan on whom people will meet or how they will interact with eachother at the event, and this can drive everyone crazy who is seeking up front proofof value. Many forgo attending conferences and trade shows because of the lack ofa measurement of these intangibles, but they forever miss out on the upside thatcomes from participation at meetings, conferences, seminars, conventions, andtrade shows.www.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 2
  3. 3. The best analogy for the value of this intangible part of a conference wasmentioned in a March / April 2011 article in Association Leadership Magazine.The topic was about calculating the value of event sponsorships, and author EstesSher, senior sales manager for Hilton Americas – Houston, compared the value tothe assignment of “goodwill” in the sale of a business. Goodwill is a legitimateaccounting term that expresses the value of an ongoing business beyond its assets,resulting perhaps from the reputation the firm enjoyed with its clients. Thecreation of an experience that produces a real atmosphere for positive networkinghas to be calculated in the value of the ROI.The long-term impact from the conference is often in the little things that come upby surprise. While this can be difficult to plan and measure, creating anatmosphere for networking and educating the audience in ways to take advantageof making connections with each other will have a huge impact on how everyoneexperiences the event. The Speakers Set the ToneSelecting the right speakers for your event is important. The speakers set the tonefor the whole experience, and too often how they will engage an audience isoverlooked in the selection process. There is an ongoing argument of “content vs.style” when it comes to speakers for the main stage and breakout sessions. As thepush is toward being able to quantify all value, organizers are talking a lot aboutcontent. Additionally in an effort to save money they are seeking industry expertswho will come to promote their business, rather than looking for professionalspeakers who charge a fee to present. The combination often leaves audiencesbored in their chairs.One meeting planner told me their board had forbidden any “motivationalspeakers”, while instead only wanting “content speakers”. While I understood thepurpose behind their statement, I was curious what is the opposite of motivational?Boring? Dull? De-Motivational? Lazy? The reality is that all speakers need to bemotivational. I am not claiming that you just want a high energy, but fluffypresentation. Instead I am advocating for both! Just because someone is smart orhas done something cool – it does not mean they belong on your stage. You needto ensure that all speakers have experience presenting at conferences or you takethe risk that it could undermine the whole event."Topics" or "types" of speakers do not always translate into impactfulpresentations. If the organizer (or someone they trust) has not seen a specificwww.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 3
  4. 4. speaker live on stage, they need to pay more attention to the selection process andcheck with references from other conference organizers.In the planning stages there are so many details to be taken care of that speakerselection is often a matter of filling the slots. Speakers are sometimes selectedbecause they are famous or they have accomplished something amazing in theirindustry with the hope that they will help sell tickets, and this is often a goodstrategy. But if nobody has ever seen the speaker present, the message might not bein alignment with the meetings purpose or they have not perfected their publicspeaking skills, and it can leave the meeting flat on its back.Many speakers also do not like to socialize with the audience before and after theirpresentations. This is not only true of the celebrity speakers. Attendees like tomeet and mingle with the speakers, and even those who are not celebrities arefamous to the audience while they are present at the event. If the speaker intendsto speak and leave it can impact the atmosphere. While scheduling conflicts oftenmean that you have to allow a speaker come in, speak, and leave right after theyare done, it is best to seek speakers who are willing and able to spend some time asan active part of the conference community. Their presence at meals, breaks andhappy hours help bring excitement to the event. If the speaker is an author,providing a copy of their book for everyone (if your budget will allow or you canfind a sponsor) and then hosting a book signing also inspires people to talk to eachother about their experience with the speaker and his message. Crushing the CliquesMany events that have been going on for years have clusters of the usual attendeeswhich include board members and other volunteers who make the gathering anannual reunion. These people often are VIP’s in the hosting organization and havehistorically contributed to the success of the conferences. Honoring those whohave had an impact is important to keeping them engaged, and in encouragingothers to get involved, but often these people can accidently create “power brokercliques” that are exclusive to only a chosen few. This can leave newcomers andothers on the outside feeling like it is not a welcoming atmosphere or an invitingplace to which they would want to return.These cliques often will have influence over those who organize the conferenceand are adverse to any changes in the agenda. They are happy with the way thingshave always been and they resist letting the event change with the times. Notwww.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 4
  5. 5. being open to new formats and other changes can create a feeling that theconference is the same old thing each year.Cliques exist anywhere you find large groups, and we cannot expect that they willever be eliminated. However, the best way to crush a clique is to expose theharmful side effects that come from having a closed society. Organizers need toengage the long-timers as the ambassadors for the future, and get them to lead thecharge in making people feel welcome. Host pre-event meetings for those whomight otherwise be part of cliques and encourage them lead the charge for a betterconference. Get them to go beyond socializing with old friends by inviting peoplewho seem to be standing alone, or new attendees to the event, into theirconversations.One conference I witnessed let the board and former board members know thatthey were failures if anyone was ever seen standing alone. There was a personalchallenge made to seek out the new attendees, and the folks who made up the“power broker cliques” were given special welcome packages to hand out.Everyone bought into the challenge and those who had previously been responsiblefor creating a negative and closed-out mood instead became the ones who wereleading the charge to make all feel included. External Social PartiesThere are often rules that vendors and others cannot host unapproved parties orother gatherings within the days of the show. While organizers like to sellsponsorships and have full control of the activities that the attendees are engagedin, tighter budgets have cut back the amount of social events, leaving more andmore free time for those in attendance. However, the rules about no outside partieshave remained in place.The best atmospheres come with some relaxing of the rules. Allowing vendors,who are part of the conference society, to host events that are not sanctioned orregulated often has a positive effect on the culture of the event. Not everything hasto be on the official schedule and often people like the idea of being invited to VIPevents that are not part of the main program.One major annual industry awards event I attend is followed by an “After Party”sponsored by a local law firm. The after event is not “owned” by the host of theawards program, and they do not regulate who is invited, the entertainment, orwhat is on the menu. Over several years the after party grew in size and took on awww.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 5
  6. 6. life of its own. Several people skip the main event and only attend the after party,but this does not take away from the program. Instead it has improved theexperience for everyone involved and made it easier for the host of the awardsprogram to sell more tables.TED has allowed local groups to utilize its brand with the creation of TEDx, andwhile there are some regulations, they are mostly open to interpretation by theorganizers in the local communities. SXSW has become legendary for the partieshosted by large technology companies and music labels at nearby restaurants andbars. The best ones are often the ones that are not part of the SXSW schedule.Having too much control is not always in your best interest. Find a way to let goof some of the social aspects of your conference and trust that the community willhave more fun and a better experience. It is often at these informal events wherethe most meaningful networking connections are created. Be Inclusive of VendorsMany large conferences and trade shows could not exist without the support of thevendors; however there is often an invisible wall between vendors and attendees.The reality is that a conference is a mini-society and everyone who is present ispart of the mix.The organizers need to work to break down these walls in advance of the show tohelp the vendors stand shoulder to shoulder with the attendees, but this involvesinvesting to educate both sides on the value of the vendors to the attendees.Too many people avoid the trade show floor because they do not want to have thevendors pouncing on them to sell them something or add them to their mailing list.Too often the vendors behave as hungry wolves that assume everyone theyencounter has pork-chop hanging around their neck. This historical assumptionthat all trade show vendors are overly aggressive has made it difficult fororganizers to find ways to bring the two groups together.The first step is to not set up artificial boundaries. Some conferences limit accessto keynotes and breakouts to attendees only. This sends a message to both sidesthat vendors are a subset of the mini-society. I am sure this policy has come aboutbecause of attendees feeling pounced upon by vendors, but instead of harming thewhole interaction between good people who should know each other. Attendeesshould be informed that aggressive sales behavior is not to be tolerated and thatthey should report pushy vendors who are trying too hard. At the same timewww.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 6
  7. 7. vendors need to be educated on how they are expected to behave if they are goingto participate as a sponsor.Organizers should work with the vendors in advance on how to integrate into thesociety of the conference. Too many times sponsors avoid all the main stagekeynotes, networking breaks and meals. They either do not want to socialize withthe attendees (which is weird, but true) or they are utilizing that time to be onlineor on other outside sales related activities. While present at a conference vendorsmust participate if they wish to be seen as part of the group. Skipping the keynotepresentations means that you do not have an understanding of what everyone elseheard that day.I had one vendor tell me that once she began attending the opening keynotes itgave her a more natural starting point for conversations when people came to herbooth later in the day. Instead of looking for strained small talk or “how are youtoday”, she was instead able to ask meaningful questions about how they felt aboutthe opening speeches. She later even began attending the breakout sessions, as shecould go deeper into talking about the interesting technical learning that took placein one of the tracks. Even when someone did not attend the same breakout session,her participation made them more equal than just “vendor and attendee”. Continuing the CultureThere must be a commitment from the organizers and the attendees if you want toextend the culture of the event beyond the meeting. Online tools, LinkedInGroups, Twitter hashtags, webinars and other communications are ways toencourage ongoing dialogues after the attendees go home.The National Speakers Association’s 2011 Winter Conference, “The Un-Conference”, included a series of webinars that were hosted by attendees who hadparticipated in the “Un-Agenda” portion of the event. Event co-chairs GinaSchreck and Neen James wanted to insure that the learning opportunities continuedeach month after the event leading up to the organization’s Summer Convention.The webinars were marketed as an extension of the Winter Conference, and wereavailable for free to attendees and other association members. Presentation topicswere a combination of stand-alone and follow-up discussions designed to help themembership continue to learn, and extend the brand of the conference.www.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 7
  8. 8. Make the CommitmentDecide in the early stages of planning your event that you want to foster anatmosphere for better networking and create a conference culture. Engage all thepeople who are involved with the conference and ensure that everyone buys intothe importance. It takes very little to undermine these efforts or to simply makethem a lip-service while continuing to promote more of the same. A commitmentto culture needs everyone to participate. Plan for the unexpected and realize thatsome of the best value can come from the intangible aspects of participation atyour event.Select speakers who are dedicated to advancing the whole purpose of yourmeeting. Do not just fill slots with anyone who has an interesting topic and makesure that they have the right combination of content and public speaking skills.Work with speakers who are willing to interact with your attendees and help youadvance your networking culture.Try to lessen the influence of cliques by getting your long-time attendees to be theambassadors for the future by enlisting them to welcome new members and strikeup conversations with those who appear shy.Invite vendors to the table as full participants in the event and help them get pastthe stigma of being pushy in regards to their sales tactics. Position sponsors as theconduit to more connections and educate them not to be too aggressive when theymeet prospective clients. When everyone remembers they are all people who cancultivate long-term and mutually beneficial relationships, then there is no wallbetween attendees and vendors.Allow and encourage more social activities beyond the agenda. You do not needto regulate every gathering that takes place within the time span of your event. Ifattendees are discovering value from being at your event, they will not worry abouthow hosted the after party. Your culture benefits when there are more options forpeople to make meaningful connections.www.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 8
  9. 9. About Thom SingerThom Singer is known as “The Conference Catalyst”. He is a professional speakerand the author of eight books on the power of business relationships, networkingand public speaking skills. With over 20 years of sales, marketing, publicrelations, business development and networking experience in the businesscommunity, Singer has worked for several Fortune 500 Companies, AM LAW 100law firms and entrepreneurial ventures. He is an experienced observer in howpeople make, grow and keep their business relationships.Singer regularly speaks at conferences, conventions, trade shows and companymeetings around the country teaching professionals the importance of cultivatingbusiness relationships to further their careers. His “Conference Catalyst” programstransform the culture of events and create an atmosphere for better networking.More information at: www.thomsinger.comWhat people are saying:"We hired Thom Singer to serve as the "Conference Catalyst" for our annual userconference. His program added a whole new element to the conference, igniting asense of urgency in the attendees to meet each other, and resulting in a betterexperience for everyone. I highly recommend Thom if you are looking to create amemorable event." - Bertrand Hazard, VP of Marketing, Troux Technologies"I have never been to a technology conference that included someone specificallyfocused on the inter-personal aspects of a conference, and it really did make adifference in the whole tone of the event! I walked away with many more goodcontacts than I ever have at similar events. After the conference, I spoke to theevent organizer about how much I enjoyed your presentation and the overalldifference you made to the whole atmosphere… She wholeheartedly agreed!"-Brice Austin, VP and Division CIO, (Major Financial Institution)www.ConferenceCatalyst.com Page 9