by Matt Mattson
Conferences, conventions, meetings, and seminars. Staples of professional life. Whether you’re a corporate connector, an association maven, a non-profit networker, or really anyone else with a job or an organizational affiliation — you’ve been to a conference.
Sometimes those conferences are amazing. Sometimes… maybe most times… they’re painful.
Sure, the keynote speakers are entertaining. Sure, the food and beverages are delightful. Often just being away from the office (and home!) can be the real treat. But the real reason people attend conferences often leaves them wanting.
“I want to build relationships in the industry.”
“I’m hoping to build a network of people who I care about.”
“I want to find a mentor who can be my advocate and supporter.”
“I want to learn how other people across the country are dealing with the challenges I’m facing.”
IT’S THE PEOPLE, PEOPLE! Great conference experiences – the ones people tell stories about, the ones that change lives — aren’t built from room rates, staging, A/V, signage, apps, or scheduling. They’re built from an environment that encourages and supports real, meaningful, care-filled relationships.
And I don’t mean an exchange of business cards. Yuck! I’ll be honest… I absolutely HATE “conference conversations.”
“Where do you work? Oh, what do you do there? Mmm-hmm. Now where did you say you live? Oh, it’s so cold/hot/flat/beautiful/friendly/big/small there. [Forced laughter] How about this weather. Well it was great to meet you, [Peeks sneakily at nametag] <INSERT FIRST NAME>. Can I get your business card? Let’s stay connected. I need to check my text messages. It was a pleasure meeting you.”
We know that when you ask people why they attend a conference, they’ll tell you “TO NETWORK” as one of their top two reasons. But most people leave most conferences feeling empty and cheated. They went to ed sessions. They saw the keynotes. They even went to the “networking events,” but they didn’t make any real connections. They had a lot of conversations like the one described above. “Conference conversations.” Surface level. Yuck.
In an increasingly disconnected world, face-to-face meetings matter now more than ever. But the meetings can’t feel like an extension of social media — individuals broadcasting their agendas with gossipy trolls commenting in the wings. Meetings need to be full of HUMAN CONNECTION. That’s why people are coming.
When the conference environment fails to deliver this feeling of authentic human connection, participants (and more and more, vendors) put a band-aid over the awkwardness by serving… booze (in some industries, anyway). Lots of it. All day long. Which makes the conversations slightly louder, funnier, and more entertaining — but not more important, impactful, or long-lasting.
So what do you do if you’re a meeting planner or someone in charge of organizing conferences? Our opinion (and yeah, this is a sales pitch): Open the conference by reminding participants that humans are social animals – everything we’re trying to accomplish as professionals, as leaders, and as change makers depends upon our ability to connect with other humans.
- Social Excellence is the philosophy through which you’ll succeed no matter what your job is.
- All leadership is social. Your ability to connect determines your ability to lead.
- All networking is based on authenticity and vulnerability, not sarcasm and wit.
- Real, meaningful conversations are all anyone really wants, but most of us aren’t well-practiced in creating conversations with meaning.
- The real learning at a conference happens when people discuss the real application of lessons – outside the session room.
- People will be happier and more likely to return to your conference if they can create real relationships with multiple people.
Here’s the thing. Most people know they want to “network,” they know they want “connections,” and when you ask them privately, they also know that they get nervous, scared, awkward, and clumsy when it comes to actually trying to make new friends.
Bring human connection to your next conference or meeting. Nothing else matters if your attendees don’t feel connected.