Real Connection at Conferences

7 Tips on How to Lose Stuffiness and Create Connection

We’ve all been there. Standing around a high-top table at the post-session networking happy hour, listening to some CEO drudge on and on about their accomplishments, how they graduated from Yale, and, of course, about the three beautiful children at home and their many accomplishments. It’s not that we don’t want to hear about another person’s life. But, we tend to pull out our showy sides in these environments. The air is filled with one-upmanship, and we can’t seem to reveal anything fresh, raw, or honest. The saddest part is everyone attends a conference to learn and collaborate in meaningful ways, but that’s not happening if real, human connection isn’t happening. As an event planner, you can try something different! Let’s check out some ideas inspired by gathering guru, Priya Parker.

If you want to create more connection and meaning at your next conference or gathering, try a small dinner the night before the event. You and your team can create multiple small dinners if you want to include everyone or choose 12-15 people who you think need to connect. Here are some tips on how to create the kind of depth missing from stuffy, puffy conferences through an intimate dinner:

  1. Set a clear goal for the evening. Something like turn off all networking switches, elevator pitches, and help people to connect authentically. 
  2. Focus on normal preparations that support your goal. For example, choose a private space with low lighting, warm candles, comfort food, and good wine. Your invitation should go out to no more than 15 people and explain as explicitly as possible the intentions of the evening. Tell people what they can leave at the door – work accomplishments, resumes, and pre-planned speeches for sure! 
  3. Choose an enriching theme. For example, “nothing related to work,” “stuff we want to say, but don’t,” “what I know now,” or Priya Parker’s famous theme “a good life.” 
  4. Give some thought to the structure of the conversation. Will you encourage everyone to share their thoughts through toasts? Through a game of some kind? Or will you come up with your own creative twist? 
  5. Welcome your guests as they enter, handing them cocktails and making many introductions. This entrance sets the tone for the evening ensuring your guests feel comfortable, appreciated, known, and seen.
  6. Create name cards and consider your goal when establishing a seating order.
  7. Begin the dinner by raising a glass and thanking guests for attending the dinner. Be sure to note the rules for the evening and why you chose the theme.

Here are a few important rules Priya suggests:

-“Leave your success at the door. No need to slip in an accomplishment.”

-“Tell us something that would surprise us.” 

-“Treat this evening more like a wedding than a conference.”

-“Begin each share by telling us a story and signal the end of the story by raising a glass to the lesson or value behind the story.”

-“The last person to share has to sing their story.” (This ensures people launch into stories right away.)

There you have it! A fun and relatively easy way to add a dash of interest and intimacy to the worn-out conference model. We become better people when we both share what is vulnerable and lean in to listen to each other. Human connection creates meaning and meaning creates a successful experience that attendees are sure to remember. For more profound tips like this, pick up Priya Parker’s book, The Art of Gathering. If you’re looking for a warm, private space for your next event at Sharonville Convention Center, The Hyatt Place has many options available. Third Eye Brewery is also a fun space with quiet corners to relax and have a more intimate evening.