Eight Tips To Encourage Participation, Intimacy, Community In Your Conferences And Events

When was the last time you visited a museum?

Picture from Brooklyn Museum Graffiti Exhibit 2006 source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/brooklyn_museum/212671060/sizes/m/

Nina Simon‘s Complicity, Intimacy, Community post about fostering personal relationships with visitors in small and large spaces brought back a flood of memories of some of my museum experiences. You should read it and then come back here. Go ahead, I’ll be here when you finish.

My Museum Experiences In My Twenties
In my twenties, I had the pleasure of helping Dallas Natural History Museum plan and create some exhibits. I was a docent, trainer and event professional in addition to my day job.  I hosted many weekend sleepovers for groups of 30, 50 and 100 kids in that museum. Yeah, what was I thinking? Actually, it was awesomesauce for sure. Ok, I digress.

I recall one experience of working on an environmental exhibit about garbage, trash and recycling. As a content expert (I was known as the Garbage Guru back then) and educator, my task was to help the designers dream up large, hands-on interactive exhibits. Those exhibits were to serve as focal points that entertained, educated and allowed multiple people to play with them at one time. These were not to be the typical poster or 3-D mannequin exhibits. They were to be participatory to increase memory retention and learning.

Applying Museum Exhibit Design Thoughts To Meetings
During those brainstorming sessions, the museum exhibit designers taught me a lot. I learned about the need to create opportunities for strangers to participate together, create community, develop closeness with one another and foster a sense of a safe place to explore the unknown. Little did I know that these designers were giving me a blueprint for annual conferences meeting, events and tradeshow experiences.

Nina Simon’s blog addresses applying Web 2.0 principles of engagement, networking and community in museum environments. In her recent post she described an exchange with a colleague about her experience in a large museum.

Simon said, “It didn’t require the staff at the front desk remembering her name or building a personal relationship with her. It required a certain kind of place and feeling that visitors manage (mostly) on their own.”

Her point struck a chord with me. As meeting and event professionals, it is our job to facilitate an atmosphere, sometimes in massive venues, that encourages attendees to build personal relationships, and manage complicity and community on their own.

So how do we do that? Practically speaking, how do we foster and encourage community, intimacy and participation in events of 500 to 25,000 people?

Eight Tips To Encourage Complicity, Intimacy And Participation At Your Next Event
Here are eight tips to help you encourage complicity and intimacy among strangers and friends at your next event. Hat tips to Nina Simone for helping me spin some of these too.

1. Set the stage early and often.
Let meeting attendees know how they can participate and what to expect early and often before they arrive onsite. Use email, chats, conference ecommunities, YouTube videos and social networks to share these ideas and set the stage. Start sessions declaring them safe spaces to openly share opinions, ideas and thoughts. Encourage others to join in and share their voice.

2. Seek buy in through agreements and ground rules.
Create and share your own COPA (conference organizer, presenter and attendee) agreement.

3. Become a conduit to experiences.
Ask staff and organization leaders to act as friends, partners and helpers instead of enforcers. Get them to set the tone.

4. Secure community greeters and seed group discussions with facilitators.
Recruit organization or local volunteers to serve as community greeters, encouraging attendees to touch, look with their eyes and ears, talk and reach out to one another. Use facilitators to help ignite small group discussions.

5. Use large open spaces wisely.
Create informal lounges in large open spaces where people can mingle, chat and greet one another comfortably. Benches, couches, groupings of informal seating along with recharge stations are great additions.

6. Encourage tradeshow exhibits that are open and able to serve many at once.
Encourage tradeshow exhibitors to create open spaces that display their products or services in ways that can be used comfortably by large groups of visitors. Hands on, interactive exhibits will attract crowds. Are visitors seen as distracting others from the experience and therefore some are missing out? Or are visitors seen as partners helping others join in the participation?

7.  Invite group play using displays with social objects.
Nina Simon explains that artifacts and social objects foster conversations around attendees’ shared experiences. Create experiences and tradeshow floor events that attract crowds and invite group play. Consider an exhibit of artifacts from the past five, ten or twenty years of the industry. Place flat screens with rotating images in large open spaces near small group lounge areas to spark conversations.

8. Ask presenters to use interactive learning experiences.
You can read more about that here, here and here.

What tips would you add to encourage complicity and participation in conferences and events? How could your encourage group play and use social objects at your next conference or event?

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  1. Hi Jeff,
    Brilliant post – great idea to bring the museum conception of space and interaction into this discussion. What about using some of the new social media tools like custom foursquare badges for your conference, or room check-ins? I was at SXSW and I loved seeing where everyone was and hearing the backchannel talk from attendess’ foursquare and gowalla checkims. I even found people I was looking for that way.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:


      Great additions – using some of the new social media tools for networking, check-ins and to find others. I think both Foursquae and Gowalla give conference organizers another great opportunity to connect with their attendees virtually and provide custom badges to their participants online footprint. Thnaks for adding that.

  2. […] In a world of instantaneous communication and feedback, this structure has lost its power. As Jeff Hurt noted in a number of his blog posts, presenters need to focus on the ways people learn as opposed […]

  3. Traci Browne says:

    Thank you for another great experience Jeff. I learn so much from your posts. I will definitely be brainstorming ideas to bring a sense of community to our events. Point #7 about social displays seems to be a very fun and creative way to do that.

    1. Jeff Hurt says:

      Thanks for adding to the conversation. I bet social objects/displays would be something you are very good at doing! 😉

  4. Camron Toth says:

    This is a great post. I can imagine a Social Media graffiti area with conference postings through a hallway. Something to think about for one of the next #eventprofs Event Camps.

    I also like the idea of focusing on serving many at once while keeping the learning personal and malleable.

  5. […] are nine tips repurposed from a 2010 post on how to encourage involvement, engagement and participation at your next […]

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