Community building at events – greatness is found in the detail

The ultimate goal of any event is that everyone who attended feel afterwards that it was really worth going, and they are genuinely pleased that they trusted the organisers with some of their precious time. 

A great way to improve the chances of making this true is to have well planned community building and integration so that even if some of your speakers or talks are less than perfect, at least people feel:  “I was welcome. I met cool new people, I had fun, it was well organised”.

I’ve seen a lot good, average and atrocious management at events I’ve either attended or helped host over the years. Interestingly sometimes despite very large budgets the user experience is dire, and at low budget events people feel great.

Some great examples of good practice can be learned at TED and TEDx, and elsewhere. Although some of my examples are TEDx related, my experience stretches across a range of other  events types and formats.

Bad practice can give an insight into good. Let’s start with a description of “bad” practice from the point of view of someone attending an event for the first time – somebody who knows nobody, who had a reason for attending, but none the less has some trepidation about going to an event where they have no contacts or friends. Put yourself in their shoes.

You arrive at the address you found on the internet/ Facebook, 15 minutes early, and spend 5 minutes trying to find out where in the building the event is actually taking place. There are no signs and the reception/porters have no idea what is going on.

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You find the event room. There are lots of roll ups from sponsors.  No one welcomes you, and after lining up you are asked to fill in your details by hand  – even though you already have them printed out on your registration form. You don’t get a badge with your name on it.  No one introduces themselves to you,  or attempts to make you feel welcome,  or asks you why you came. Free high cost branded snacks and drinks do not compensate for the fact that no one seems to care about the fact that that you are there. There is no recycling bin. The organisers are happily talking to each other, and from time to time greet people they know already when they arrive. A projector displays a Windows home screen. Someone  – you don’t know who – tells you to take a seat. You sit by yourself, and other attendees who have also followed the instruction also sit in silence, evenly spaced out, or with the people they came with. The result is that no one talks to anyone they don’t know. People do things with their smart phones or tablets. The front few rows are completely empty. Five minutes after advertised start time, someone else (who also doesn’t introduce themselves) says “we’ll wait a few more minutes for the late comers” and more silence prevails. 15 minutes after advertised start time, someone says, “we may as well get started” and things lumber into action.

I don’t think it is acceptable for the person or people in charge of an event to let this happen.  It’s wasteful and unimaginative.  Running an event like this represents is a “Type Two error” which in accounting terms means “an error of missed opportunity”. It’s a waste of the potential energy and commitment of people who could  contribute to your organisation and community. I’d go as far as to say it is disrespectful of the people who are attending.

Good event design requires putting yourself in the position of an attendee. Make your target “a first time attendee who doesn’t know anyone”. If you treat the hour or more of their life they entrusted to you as precious, and ensure that they are treated with care, respect and thoughtfulness by the organisers,  it will work all the better for those who are already at home. A welcoming attitude rubs off on everyone.

So how should it be done?  This blog post is my proposal of good practice. Although I never attended a TEDxAmsterdam, I very much like the Dutch approach described here and that agree that in this area (as in many others) “greatness is found in the detail”

TEDxAmsterdam

These, in this spirit of TED, are ideas worth sharing

The community building and welcoming aspects of the event should be given attention. Here’s what to do.

1. Volunteers Appeal for a group of volunteers, whose job it is to help with icebreakers & integration. Meet them before the event, agree how everything is going to work, and make the “pre-meeting meeting” fun.  The more you and the team enjoy it, the more the atmosphere will rub off on the attendees. The point of the ice breakers is to facilitate the experience of meeting new people in a non-threatening interesting way.

2. Pre event Publicity Publicise that the icebreakers will start  for example 30 mins before the main event in pre-event communication. Doing so makes the participation in the games more consensual, and when people arrive on time, they walk into a room buzzing with activity. Icebreakers take people out of their comfort zone and there will be resistance. The people who resist often are the ones who get most into it once it is under way.

3 Apply “design thinking”.  Imagine the physical route someone who doesn’t know their way around the venue will take. Print enough signs/posters, with your logo,  arrows, and “Welcome”  and stick them up (remember to take tape/bluetack) making it easy for the new comers to find your room. Be nice to porters and receptionists – tell them about your event – and ask them to look out for people looking lost. They will appreciated being treated with respect too. Remember to remove the posters when you leave  – it is not your venue  – and again being respectful to the staff who work there sets a great example and it often noticed by other team members and attendees.

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Attention to detail, and showing that you care about your attendees’ welfare,  sends a good subliminal message about the values of your event and organisation.

4 Badge people with their first names  (simple labels and marker pens are enough) so that it is easy to figure out who you are talking to. You can write names on by hand. Also there is always an opportunity for an icebreaker game. If are using 8 labels to a page. Print each sheet with types of  fish, animals, vegetables so you have 8 dogs, 8 sharks 8 carrots etc as as people arrive they get a random type of animal vegetable, on their name badge. Tell each shark, carrot  etc they should  find other sharks, and find a TED talk they both like. You can have prizes, make people act their animal types, and other silliness, depending on the degree of informality wanted and give prizes.  If you expect 50 people you can have 8 labels of each type. Obviously the labels can match the theme of the meeting. For example if the theme is medicine then people can be labelled: antibiotic, aspirin, drugs, doctor, surgeon, nurse, hospital, blood, bone or whatever.  TEDxAmsterdam also also categorised badges into “TEDx Veteran” and “TEDx Virgin” which is also a conversation starter.  In my view it is good to make the games light hearted.The goal is to make sure that people get to talk to people they don’t know so that they feel at home, part of the event and have a more interesting and pleasurable time.

5. Welcoming. Have people from the volunteer team whose job it is to be “the welcomers”. Welcoming makes a *huge* difference. For events I am in charge of I aim to make sure that the man or woman who knows *nobody*, who wasn’t sure about coming at all, is the priority. If people in this category are made to feel welcome, everyone else will feel fine. It’s great if the main hosts get involved in this.   See the picture from TEDxAmsterdam above where the main Curator is doing this himself. Leadership involves setting an example. Steve Carlson, formerly Budapest City Leader for First Tuesday showed me how to do  welcoming about 12 years ago.  He was my mentor and coach for the first “First Tuesday” meeting in Krakow.   After 10 minutes he said:

“don’t talk to your friends,  introduce people to each other.”

“But I don’t know these people” I protested.

“Doesn’t matter – neither do I” he said “Watch”

As the next person arrived he just said

“hi, I’m Steve, and I’m a host. Do you know everyone  here?”

and as the guy responded with his name and “no, I don’t know many people”

Steve just steered the guy over to someone else standing alone, and said “this is x, he doesn’t know many people, what’s your name? (easier if there are badges). Please be nice to him ”

Tell all your volunteers to do it, and it will transform the event.

Lines for them to use are:
” – hi welcome,
– have you been to one of these events before?
– where are you from?
– what’s your name?
– come and get registered, get a drink and I’ll introduce you to some people…
– do you know many people here?

Whatever response they get from people arriving,  be positive, and then – vitally –  do the introduction to another attendee and then wander off.  If people are very early you can ask them to do welcoming too. People like to be made to feel useful, and turning your attendees into welcomers  guarantees they get to meet lots of people, and feel part of the event.

6 Print badges with “Volunteer” or “Hosts” on them.  At TED Global there were quite a few “hosts” whose job it is to be helpful. It worked. Tell attendees at the beginning of the event that hosts/volunteers are there to be helpful. It shapes team expectations if you underline their job is to serve the community of attendees. Give the people who are helping you credit. They deserve it. Thank them from the stage and get the attendees to give them a round of applause. Not only does this increase their motivation, but reminds those who attended that work and effort went into the event.

7. Music John Scherer and his partner Amy Barnes helped with an Open Space Technology  conference in the follow up to the first TEDxKrakow and they emphasised the importance of mood music. I use a fabulous little Musicman sound box to fill the room with pub piano music. It creates a lovely first impression to hear this kind of music on the stairwell as you arrive. Attendees like it. (John’s TEDx Talk is here. It was one of the most popular of the first  TEDxKrakow event and well worth watching)

8. Icebreaker games  Icebreaker games require  a bit of planning, The few simple steps and processes are  important. Otherwise it can descend into chaos, and that can seem disrespectful of the attendees.  You need to be able to get the activities under way as people arrive. At TEDxWarsaw Salon  TEDxYouth@Krakow  and The TED.com and TEDx Travel and Meetup Club a “speed dating” format was used which worked very well. People stood in circles of 10/one inner one outer and every minute the whistle blew and the outer circle had to move clockwise. The first group got underway when about 20 people had arrived. The task was simply for people to introduce themselves, and share what they liked about TED or how they had heard of TEDx. Topics to discuss can be varied to suit the theme/time of year (for example December/January is a  good to discuss New Year resolutions).

9. Seating. it can be an idea to tape off the seating with “builders hazard tape” leaving only the first rows empty, and get attendees to fill rows from the front backwards.  This is a lot nicer for the speaker, and if you want people to talk to each other, makes their natural tendency to not sit next to each other much harder. If you do this you need to make sure your volunteers are told and support this.

10. Feedback. Both during the meeting and after ask “What was good, what was bad, what can we improve?”.  Encourage constructive criticism.  Ask people to post feedback on your event wall. It lets everyone know that you are ambitious and want your event to get better over time.

11. When you are not in charge Even if you are speaking at an event where you are not in charge,  where you don’t have the authority to manage the whole “welcoming format” as described above, you can still  improve things a lot. Once I have my presentation set up –  I ask people in the audience to start introducing themselves, and to explain why they have decided to attend, a good 10 minutes before the official start time. It can cause a bit of disruption but it is clearly a “good thing to do”. It wakes people up (no one is completely relaxed if they are about to say who they are in front of a large group of strangers), and it is interesting for the other participants.

12. Starting on time If I am speaking alone, I also refuse to start late. I ask the organisers, “why should I as a speaker, and people who have bothered to be on time, have their time wasted by the people who are late?”. It’s disrespectful. If they don’t like it, you won’t be invited back.

13. Community announcements I also encourage event organisers to allow short (no more than a minute) community announcements, if that meets the format & license.   Sharing of projects and ideas is a “good thing’. People announce things online so much these days –  but face to face is better. It also builds up soft linkages and relationships in your local community. If you let other positive people on your stage for a minute, it means you can expect the same in return.

14 Bloggers/Instagram/Tweeting If you have a blogger, ask them to record what goes on in the meeting and post the most interesting that happen as a blog post. Encourage attendees to use the event wall on Facebook as a place to post thoughts and comments so that community building can take place on line afterwards.  IMG_4286

If you are hosting an event somewhere which adds status, (a University, Google etc) snap a photo of your poster with their logo and upload it onto your event page via Instagram. It takes a few seconds and creates a record of your partnership for all the world to see (and reminds those who missed the event that they are missing it 🙂 ) Encourage Tweets with your hashtag for the same reason.

Conclusions There is a lot you can do to make your events fun, welcoming and useful at almost no cost.  If you can you should at least try.  As a leader you should set an example, and make sure you support the people in your team who are to deliver on these topics.  I’d love to get feedback from people who do want to have a go, and will gladly support to anyone who requests it.

For Krakow based readers who want to check out my implementations some of the ideas here, please join Krakow Volunteers Wolontariusze

Anyone can check out Open Coffee Krakow a event where things work more or less as I believe they should.

Richard

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8 comments on “Community building at events – greatness is found in the detail

  1. Thank you, Richard for this great set of advices, they’re really helpful 🙂 Sometimes as an organizer you can overlook such important details!… Hope to implement the best practices into our Kreatywne Śniadania z Creative Cracow…

  2. I’ve supported and been to Creative Breakfasts in Krakow, and they are well worth while.