A tiny change can drastically increase the amount of networking people do at conferences and other events.
Networking is one the primary benefits of attending conferences. Nevertheless, so many people wind up talking to coworkers, staring at their phones, or otherwise avoiding talking to strangers. It’s not that people don’t want to network, they just tend to be inhibited.
It comes down to risk. Approaching a stranger risks rejection. I think back to all those times in middle school (and in high school, and in college, and in my 20’s . . .) when I would approach a girl and she would reject me. In some cases, she would turn back to her friends or walk away. Ouch. Whether it was asking someone to dance in middle school or something more platonic, that type of rejection is very painful for all of us. Even if someone is more polite, excusing themselves after a minute, you still feel rejected. We’ve all been there, and all carry the scars.
Approaching a stranger risks rejection.
One way to minimize this risk is to get permission. Asking people to donate money to a charity is awkward. But if you're doing an event, say a charity fun run, asking people to sponsor you is easier because that’s the expectation. (It’s still not easy for some, but it’s easier.) You don’t normally hit all your friends up to donate to your charity but for this specific event you’ve been told that to be part of it requires you to ask for sponsors. If someone were to say, “that’s a dumb idea” it might hurt a bit, but mentally you see that negativity focused not so much at you, but rather at the event, “hmm, I guess he’s never heard of a charity run before.” Your ego is protected because you’re just an agent for the charity and your behavior is “commanded” by the charity.
We can employ the same technique at events. As a keynote speaker I work to give permission to network. That may sound strange, and even unnecessary. Obviously, people don’t need my permission; most can and do it without my saying a word. However, when given an explicit directive, e.g., “At this event I want you to make sure you talk to at least two new people each day,” it makes it easier for people to start talking to a stranger because well, "we were told to do that." If someone says, in words or body language, “that’s stupid” they are more rejecting my idea, and not the person doing it. It reduces risk for everyone at the event and increases the likelihood of meeting new people.
There are many ways to do this. It can be done from the stage, in an email, or a handout. It can be about meeting people as above or suggesting that you sit with strangers at lunch. Events often have “passports” where the goal is to get stamps from booths in order to get a prize; this drives traffic to booths. If you want to foster networking, you can do the same where people need to meet other attendees. They can scan badge QR codes, exchange tickets, or find other means of proof of interaction with fellow attendees. (I haven’t tried this, but if as “tickets” you have people post photos of themselves with new people they met on social media and tag the event, e.g., #myconf #networking @chris @devon @alex, you might not only encourage networking but get some social media content and brand your event one that’s good for networking.)
You define the convention (in every sense of the word).
Consider, if an alien anthropologist came to our planet and saw that when people meet, they begin by clasping their hands together and moving them up and down they’d think, “wow, that’s strange.” As is the first bump, bow, hugs, or other greetings. We see it as perfectly normal because, well, it just is. We’ve established it as a custom. If I started randomly talking to strangers on the bus, that would look, well, strange. But if the expectation was to do so, it would be normal, It’s simply a societal norm. This is your event, so you define the rules. A company setting up a booth on the corner of 42nd Street and Madison Avenue and saying, “let me tell you about our products” is weird. Doing it on the exhibition floor is normal. You define the convention (in every sense of the word).
Networking is one of the most desired benefits of conferences and other events. However you choose to do it, by providing just a tiny nudge, odds are that everyone at the event will likely network more and have a much better experience. Good luck and feel free to reach out if you have any questions.
It’s critical to learn about corporate culture before you accept a job offer but it can be awkward to raise such questions. Learn what to ask and how to ask it to avoid landing yourself in a bad situation.