How often do you actually get to know the person sitting next to you at a conference? Their favourite food or the biggest challenge facing their company? If you’re like most people, then not often. However, at a presentation during one of Meetingmax’s Unconvention’s, that is exactly what happened.
Speaker and award-winning author Tahira Endean stopped several times during her talk and instructed attendees to discuss a variety of topics with their seatmates. The result was a roomful of people who left having formed a connection with a new person.
In addition to bringing people together, the exercise also served to highlight the theme of Tahira’s talk, which centered on how event planners can intentionally use event design to build trust and foster connections among attendees. There are three aspects of event design in particular that can help achieve this: space, content, and interaction.
How you design your event space has a big influence on how guests interact with one another and how well they retain what they’re learning. The simple addition of sitting areas in strategic spots around your venue can provide attendees with a space to relax and chat with one another. At the same time, embedding moments of nostalgia – callbacks to the music, food or cultural references of attendees’ youth – into your event will evoke happy memories, serve as ice-breakers and allow attendees to connect over shared experiences.
For events held in a traditional convention center with similarly decorated break-out rooms, one session can easily blend into another in attendees’ minds. A way to fight this and make each session more memorable is to create multiple unique environments within your event space. This can be achieved through the creative use of lighting, holding some activities outdoors, making use of unconventional spaces and even adding in playful elements (like turning a break-out room into a ball pit). Another way to approach it is to look at how each space engages the senses. Adding in certain scents, sounds or snacks can give each session its own unique feel and make it more memorable.
The content you deliver at your event (in the form of speakers and workshops) and how you structure it has an effect on how attendees connect with each other. For events with large groups of people who don’t know each other, inserting elements of play into your sessions will help engage attendees and act as an ice-breaker. Having participants play Two Truths and a Lie with the person sitting next to them is a great way to break down barriers and get people talking.
For speakers, intentionally using storytelling when delivering their presentation will pique the audience’s interest and make them relate to the presenter. Part of the reason TED Talks are so enthralling is that the speakers don’t just talk about what they’ve discovered, they talk about the process that led them to discover it.
It is also important to remember that, in order to be at their best, attendees need to be well fed and well rested. Conferences tend to throw a lot of new information at attendees in a very short time. Building in designated reflection and break times, as well as structuring learning into 11-minute chunks, can help improve retention and decrease the risk of information overload.
In addition to looking at how you structure content, you should also look at the content itself. Obviously, the goal is always to provide content that is relevant to your attendees, however, a great way to achieve this is by asking attendees beforehand to provide feedback and vote on the topics/speakers that they would like to see.
Finally, having the event emcee act as conference weaver who links together the various topics and themes covered by each presenter will help attendees see how they are all interconnected and reinforce the overarching theme of the event.
When attendees feel like they can have a debate, that’s the sign of a good event. However, achieving that level of comfort and openness among attendees can be a challenge. As mentioned above, there are ways that you can design the environment and structure the content in order to promote interaction, but there are also other factors to consider.
Basing herself on anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research on ideal community sizes, Tahira recommends adjusting (when possible) the number of attendees based on the duration of the event. Thirty-five is the perfect number for a cocktail reception or afternoon workshop – small enough so that everyone can meet each other, but large enough so that there are plenty of fresh faces to keep things interesting – while 150 works well for a multi-day conference. For groups larger than that, think about how you could split them into smaller, more manageable subgroups within the event so that attendees don’t feel overwhelmed.
As humans, it can be easy to focus on what went wrong as opposed to what went right, which is why incorporating activities into your event that focus on the positive and gamify happiness is so important. Possibilities include providing photo booths, promoting the use of an #ilovethis hashtag and encouraging attendees to send “sugar cubes” – notes of gratitude and praise to other attendees and presenters.
The events that are the most impactful and that last the longest in people’s memories are those where they have met, heard and talked to new and inspiring people who have given them fresh ideas and perspectives. By intentionally designing your event in a way that promotes this type of interaction, you are making it something that attendees will remember for years to come.