If someone asks why you attend professional conferences, chances are you’ll say “to meet people.” For about 80% of conference attendees, networking is the top priority, studies show.
But oh, meeting new people is often so much easier in theory than in practice.
That’s where a meeting planner can make additions and adjustments that pave the way for attendees to connect with one another. Here are a few ideas.
Every year, new people come to your conference. If they have a good time, make connections and learn something new, they will likely return. Making them feel a part of your community is one way to ensure they do. To help newcomers get acquainted and acclimated, pair them with a longtime member, someone who knows lots of people and can make introductions that quickly widen a newcomer’s circle.
Identify newcomers through registration questions, then match them with your most involved and engaged members. Ambassadors can introduce them to others, answer questions and make sure they are included in small off-site dinners or other outings and events. It’s like the Welcome Wagon without the welcome basket.
Turn the Tables
It’s human nature to gravitate toward those we already know, especially if we are introverts who don’t like making conversation with strangers. Circles of old friends that gather around banquet tables can make breaking in even more difficult.
There are ways to break up cliques and open up more conversations. For a preemptive strike, hand out numbers or different colored bandannas or suckers at the banquet room door, and have people seat themselves at the table that corresponds to their number or color.
Or try this idea from Performance Management Co.: Allow people to seat themselves, and then disrupt their patterns. Designate one person as the table leader by putting a star on their chair or plate. That person is allowed to stay at the table. Everyone else must move to another, and they are not allowed to sit with their current seatmates again. Give them a short window of time to make the move — three minutes is recommended — to discourage people from sitting with their friends again or saving seats for their buddies.
Supply Conversation Starters
Most conferences miss the boat with those personal billboards we call nametags. First, they almost always could stand to be larger, with names in big, bold print so people don’t have to squint to see them. Go beyond a person’s name and company by adding a short statement like “I love ” with a blank line beneath it so the attendee can use a Sharpie to describe one of their interests. Discovering that a peer loves rock climbing or collects vintage purses allows conversations to go to new heights.
When Robbie Samuels and Hilary Allen started a social advocacy group in Boston, they used nametags to build conversations, according to a story in Fast Company by writer Dorie Clark. Their nametags said things like “I’m looking for” or “Ask me about.” “Right away, it was about creating a welcoming space and engaging with people,” said Samuels.
At dinner tables, post a topic for the whole table to discuss, like “Describe your first pet,” “What was the best/weirdest/most fun summer job you ever had?” or “Talk about a funny moment on the job.”
Share Networking Tips
We all could use a few pointers on how to start a conversation beyond the typical questions “What do you do?” or “Where are you from?” Inspire your audience to connect with others with more vigor and strategy.
Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of “The Connector’s Advantage: Seven Mindsets to Grow Your Influence and Impact,” provides several good examples at entrepreneur.com, including “What brings you here?” “How do you spend your time outside of work?” and “How did you get involved in this industry?”
Other ideas from experts: “What’s on your reading list?” and “Where do you turn for guidance when you have a problem on the job?”
Grab a few tips from the mounds of books about networking that pepper business book lists and integrate them into your preconference emails, mailings or tweets. Send a link to a TED Talk about networking. You’ll have plenty to choose from: A Google search for “business networking videos” turns up 369 million.
Conversation comes easier in small groups, so offer plenty of downsized activities and events. Fun free-time options might include a group bike ride through local parks, a guided tour of an art or history museum, a pub crawl or a cooking class. Invite early risers to an easy yoga class followed by smoothies; take night owls to a midnight movie, and buy them popcorn.
Include comfortable areas for casual conversations in your prefunction areas or even outdoors. Make sure that seating offers one open side to visually communicate that others are welcome to join. Put out boxes of jigsaw puzzles or Legos to draw people in and give them something to do. Instead of one large reception, have several small ones with themes to unite people; Game of Thrones, bookworms, gardeners, wine and cheese aficionados, for example.