Connecting: A Radical New Vision For Conferences And Events


As important as the plug is to the outlet so the electricity can flow.

As important as the computer programming is to the wireless cell tower so our cell phones work. As important as the water faucet is to the plumbing so we can have fresh water. As important as the heart pumping blood to the brain. As important as human touch is to a newborn child.

I’ve been having some fuzzy thinking in the corners of my mind lately about conferences, community and connections. Those thoughts have come to center stage and gained a more compelling clear focus after weeks of reflection of conference attendance.

I am struck by what I remember the most from my past five conference attendance–my connections with others.

  • I recall having dinner at the Virtual Edge Summit with Oracle’s Paul Salinger, Cisco’s Digital Strategist extraordinaire Kelly Graham and Lumen Consulting’s delightful and humorous Desiree Lehrbaum as we talked about virtual and hybrid events and the future of the meetings industry.
  • I remember a passionate and energetic conversation with the brilliant Michael Westcott and introspective Paul Salinger as we deconstructed Byron Reeves’ keynote presentation, Total Engagement, and how the online gaming industry would impact work, and virtual and face-to-face events.
  • I consider the hallway conversations with American Bankers Association’s Director of Professional Development J P Stephenson, introNetwork’s CEO and Co-Founder Mark Sylvester and introNetwork’s President and Co-Founder Kymberlee Weil on the impact of social media and real time feedback for events and conferences.
  • I reminisce of a dinner with Dave Lutz and Bonnie Wallsh as we compare notes about association meetings and share experiences about presenting for conferences.
  • I recollect when the Godfathers of #eventprofs, Michael McCurry, Mike McAllen, Greg Ruby and J-Lev, Jessica Levin, first got together at the Grand Hyatt at PCMA’s annual conference for drinks and discussion.
  • I could name countless other conference connections as well.

Why do I remember these people and our meetings more than the conference’s content or speakers? What did I experience with them that I didn’t experience sitting passively listening to a conference presentation?

I believe it’s because we were able to connect on an intimate level through personal conversations. In most cases we were connecting on a radical, deep-seated and revolutionary level–even while engaging about the conference’s content.

Connections–when people of likeminded communities and tribes regularly intersect and their lives are better because of that association. We need more opportunities in conference to create and grow these valuable connections.

I envision a community of people who intentionally mingle in settings at conferences and events where intangible nutrients are passed back and forth with each other, creating a type of soul force and special intimacy called a connection. Sometimes, these individuals have developed and maintained online connections and come together offline to pour into each other the resources that they each have and share. Sometimes it is the first time they meet.

Scott Gould talks about a similar concept in his post and video “Are We Building Community or Connections?” He further expands on these thoughts and how to move from crowd to community to connected to committed to core.

Imagine what could happen if conference organizers capitalized on these community connections and became the conduit for more of these experiences. Imagine if conference organizers could help attendees move from the crowd to community to connections to committed individuals to a cause. This is not something that can be created in a speed networking session where you try to get as many business cards as possible as fast as you can. These connections cannot be created in a conference luncheon roundtable that is constantly interrupted by sponsor videos, awards and announcements.

Instead, these connections are developed in discussions, where individuals gather in small groups to gain a deeper understanding for extended periods of time–at least sixty-minutes and in many cases ninety-minutes.

Most conferences are full of attendees dutifully going to sessions, sitting besides unknown individuals, participating in a variety of conference experiences and never truly connecting with another individual. Maybe attending a conference or event, more than anything else, means relating to several other attendees differently. Maybe the center of the conference community is connecting with a few.

I suggest that it’s time to take a hard look at what is being passed back and forth in our conference relationships–business cards, handshakes, eye contact, content–and ask ourselves, what is being withheld that, if given, could change our personal and professional lives. It’s time to consider a radical understanding of attending a conference that centers on releasing the power in each other to change lives. It’s time to see each attendee as an individual that has resources to share and give with others. It’s time to understand our conference community connections in a way that excites us with its potential to liberate, strengthen and encourage just a few closest to us and to touch the deepest, deadest, most terrifying part’s of attendee’s souls with life-giving power, direction and encouragement.

So how as conference organizers and owners do we do that? How do we encourage and facilitate meaningful connections so that we do not live as terrified, demanding, self-absorbed islands, disconnected from community and desperately determined to get by with whatever resources we brought to our island with us?

I have some ideas. I’d like to hear your ideas first. Am I off my rocker for wanting a better way? What do you think?

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  1. Steve Briggs says:

    Great post Jeff – can’t wait to hear your ideas! I moved to Boulder, CO last year and attend a lot of tech related meetups here. Every single one sets aside networking time either before or after the “official” content. One in particular, with over 300 attendees every month, starts (after half an hour or networking/beer time) with the organizer saying, “Please take the next sixty seconds to introduce yourself to the people sitting around you and share what you do and what you’re interested in.” It always leads to interesting meetings and conversations that sometimes lead to more involved connections later.

  2. Adrian Segar says:

    I’m flashing on the sixties demonstrations – “Power to the People!”

    At the conferences I facilitate these days, 20% – 50% of the crowdsourced conference sessions are small group facilitated discussions!

    When your conference model includes the possibility for participants to choose the topic and structure of event sessions themselves at the event this is what people choose. All you need is a conference design that empowers attendees to make these choices and that supports the decisions they make. I’m probably sounding flip—but that’s it!

  3. Thank you for the thoughts Jeff. I’ve looked forward to this post since our lunch last week and it didn’t disappoint.

    In terms of how we enable this deeper level of engagement to occur I offer that we need to take a queue from a former Microsoft tagline (“Where do you want to go today?”) and focus the design of our events & conferences around giving our attendees the keys and letting them answer the question, “What do you want to do with us?”

    I would love to see the events that I attend allow me to take part in that event’s creation, to pull attendees together in the design phase and make us the architects. We manage our own bank accounts, trust us that we’ll make wise choices with the conference $ being spent on our behalf.

    I have a 6 year old that is still figuring out this whole vegetable thing. I know they’re good for him, he trusts that I know they’re good for him yet the morsels find their way to the floor more often than too the mouth. A simple change was made. He has been promoted to CVM (chief vegetable maker). Yes, I made him a certificate for the occasion. His responsibility is to pick from 3 choices of veggies, help prep and cook them and serve them to the family. We also use the internet to learn more about what makes the veggie choice healthy.

    Results: overwhelming. That simple difference (he’s connected/engaged) has moved him from avoidance to promotion. Now I get asked why I’m not eating more veggies.

    So, I’m wondering if true engagement is a mix of event management, exhibitors & attendees not only collaborating on what should make up the event but also involve attendee ownership of some of the decisions made.

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  5. Scott Gould says:

    Hi Jeff,

    I love what you say here – that your key memories are from the connections that you made more than the content that you heard. Like Steve pointed out, the short conversations you have with other attendees sparks something and leads to a far more engaging event because you are constantly discussing it.

    Kevin’s anecdote rings true with what you were saying in your slideshare presentation about people discussing the application of content increasing retention rate.

    I think as an event planner, if I’m painfully honest, is I often underestimate the audience based on my own personal frustrations with events I’ve been too where the ‘breakout time’ was awful.

    And I guess this is still my concern with giving more time to connection is that it potentially becomes undirected. This requires, on my side, trust. But I also think we can help direct this time by using Social Media, for example, to get participants talking, engaging, etc. This instills more trust in me as an organiser, that the ‘connection time’ will not be wasted or fruitless.

    Hope my honesty helps!

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Empowering conference attendees is key for sure. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      I love the analogy of your 6 year old and making him CVM! It took some wisdom, contagious enthusaism and leading to get him to buy into that strategy. What a great illustration to apply to conferences and events.

      Honesty is always appreciated and the only way to go.

      I’m a fan of recruiting and using facilitators to help lead conversations. I like to find those people that still have inquisitive minds that will think about things from a variety of perspectives and then ask them to help lead and facilitate small groups of discussions.

      And, I think as an event organizer, you can challenge attendees to take breaks with a purpose. Give them some directions and instructions for discussion starters and encourage them to find others to digest and deconstruct the points together. Label and designate an area of the conference site where people can meet to have further discussion on a specific topic and remind them of that area before breaks.

      Or even go one step further and if you have several simultaneous concurrent or breakouts, make one breakout a discussion of the opening general session or conference big ideas. That allows attendees to gravitate to their own needs and wants–breakouts with new content or discussions to make connections that move from community to commitment.

  6. Scott Gould says:

    Will give it a go Jeff – thanks for the practical tips!

  7. Jeff I am not a conference organizer, but my one uber-simple, so-simple-it’s-almost-embarrassing-to-say hallmark as a speaker (one that has scored me repeat audiences and countless thank you’s), is to give an audience several minutes to introduce themselves to the people around them.
    I give them three things to tell their new friends and always include one silly or fun item to facilitate new relationships.

    Like I said, I’m no genius, but I do approach my speaking engagements fully cognizant of what I would like to do if it were my hind end planted in that seat.

    On another note, man you are a machine with this blog 🙂 Thanks for always sparking new thoughts!

    Midori Connolly, Chief AVGirl

  8. Dave Lutz says:

    One of the big reasons connections matter more today is that things are changing super fast. We all need to consider other models and/or incremental improvements for our conferences or business. Often times we’re not going to find those ideas by looking at competitors. We need to extend connections outside of our comfort zone or tribe to seek out and refine the ideas that will impact our business most.

    Take virtual meetings as an example. Whether you’re considering doing virtual meetings or not, you can pick up a lot about learning environments, engagement tactics or presentation best practices that could be applied to improving your live events. Trust me on this one!

    Connections, to me, are really about helping others. It’s giving your connections advice or help without expecting something in return. It’s knowing that my true connections will do the same for me when I need help. It’s focusing more on their needs when we’re talking…trying to find a way for them to leave the conversation with something of value.

    Got to run and make my wife and kids some certificates!

  9. iain says:

    run an ‘unconference’ type session. Provide a venue and resources for people on a day or two in the calendar and ask them to match up with people on the basis of particular challenges or provocative topics and ask them to develop a shareable summary for a final plenary/showcase…..role of organisers is as facilitation, check needs are being met and something is happening or allow groups to mix and ‘reboot’ if necessary…oh and not everyone has to come up with a solution or final conclusion…looking for the spark or initiative that might only arise in one or two of the groups….

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thank you for those great additions on how to connect at conferences and events. Love them.

  10. iain says:

    you’re welcome!

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