Interview #2 in the Making Rain with Events Series
One of the primary reasons people attend conferences and other live events is to connect. We want to meet our peers, exchange ideas with people who understand us and our challenges, and grow our personal networks. This “softer” part of putting together an event can be challenging. In comparison, programming an event agenda is pretty straight forward. We can set up tracks and themes and find speakers to present on the topics that will be most relevant and hopefully impactful for our attendees.
Creating an environment where your attendees can feel comfortable connecting with others in the ways they want to isn’t as clear cut. To deliver the experience your audience will appreciate takes careful planning. Simply getting everybody together in the same place and adding alcohol to the mix isn’t going to drive the outcome you and your attendees are looking for.
My good friend, Thom Singer, is an expert at creating a culture that drives connections through his Conference Catalyst program. I recently spoke with him for our ongoing Making Rain with Events interview series.
Listen to our conversation in the podcast below or read the transcript and you’ll hear Thom’s thoughts on creating an environment that is comfortable for both extroverts and introverts; what to do about the distracting smartphones that everyone brings with them to the event; and most importantly, why it’s so important to think about this element of events, and how it drives better business results and outcomes when done well.
Listen to the podcast here:
Here’s a portion of our conversation:
Scott Ingram: What suggestions do you have to help people along the path to create that right environment? Because everybody wants it. It’s no secret that when people come to an event, they want to connect. They’re just not sure how, and organizers are struggling with how to create that environment beyond just the layout.
Thom Singer: Talk about the elephant in the room. There are ways to get people talking about the fact that if you want to network, how can you do it better. In workshops, what I do is I actually break people up into small groups, and I have them talk about what they hate about networking and then what they wish it was. Then I make each group share that back out with the audience.
You would be surprised how the audience gets so excited just with each other in that workshop that they’ve been able to talk about the elephant in the room.
So again, whoever is your master of ceremonies, whoever is the host of your event. All big events should have a host. It’s not just “Hi, I’m the CEO and I’m going to come up every morning and introduce things.” There needs to be somebody who’s the host. There’s two ways you can do this. You can find somebody in your company who has those skills, and wants to be up there doing it. Often times though, if it’s a company meeting, people pick the director of sales, but the problem is, to properly host, it means you’re 100% the host all the time. It means that, on the breaks, you’re the host, at the meals you’re the host, and that doesn’t mean you’re on stage. It means you’re walking around to tables and talking to people. It means you’re hanging out in the bar.
Your director of sales probably should be talking to customers about real deals that are coming down the pike. What happens is he can’t do both jobs simultaneously, which means he’s either not going to be the perfect host, or she’s not going to be able to help the salespeople close the deal.
So who in the company can be totally dedicated to that? Or, and for totally selfish reasons, I recommend hiring a professional emcee from the outside. Not just because somebody would hire me, because there’s lots of people you can hire, but I actually think that when you bring somebody in from the outside you get a little bit of an advantage. Because the people in your audience, whether you’re an association or a company, know who your team members are, and they already have an opinion of them. Now, I’m not saying it’s a bad opinion. They may love them, but they know them in the role they serve. So no matter what they do on stage, they’re always going to be in that role.
When you bring somebody in from the outside, they can be a little bit more playful–a little bit more goofy. Even in a more serious environment. I speak a lot in the legal business for law conferences and law firm partner meetings and they say the lawyers don’t like goofy ever. Well, that’s actually not true. I worked inside a law firm and I learned something having spent four years working directly with lawyers. They’re actually human beings and they actually like things that every other human being likes, which means they want to have fun. They just might be a little more guarded, so you don’t come out and be a clown, but you want to bring them along. The nice thing about somebody from outside your company is they can try things, and if they fail, it’s just that goofy emcee rather than, “Oh, Bob, what did you just do?”
SI: How do we bring this together? I think these are some really great ideas, and some tactical things, but why does this matter? If we look at the executive level or we look at the marketing leadership, we’re funding this event. We want to drive some type of benefit. We want to grow sales. We want to accelerate our opportunities. We want to bring on new customers and things of that nature. How does this connect to that, especially if this is a user conference type of thing? How do I connect those goals of the audience wanting to network with my desire to push out a lot of stuff about the company and about what we’re doing to really drive that benefit?
TS: The two are so connected. It’s absolutely crazy. If people come to an event and across industry lines when they fill out surveys, they say they want more networking opportunities. A user event is the perfect thing because people think we need all of these people to network with the people from our company and they’re constantly splitting their employees up and shoving them in between all of the attendees. What the attendees really want is to network with each other.
If I’m a user from company X and the guy next to me is a user from company Y, we probably have very similar jobs, which means the problems we face on a daily basis aren’t just with using this company’s product, but it’s everything we do.
So if we can bond with each other all of a sudden, the value of this conference goes way up. And because people say on these surveys that they want to network, when they feel the networking sucks, they think less of the company or of the event.
And, when it goes well, two things happen. They think higher of the event and they have more fun. If people have more fun, they’re going to go back to the office and tell all of their friends “next year you’ve got to go to this.” They’re more likely themselves to come back, which means year over year, you’re going to build your event. If this isn’t your goal– if your goal is we have to make our event the best commercial ever…think of what happened after Tivo came out. We learned that nobody likes the commercials. People fast forward over the commercials. Well that’s what they’re doing during your event every time you do a commercial about your company. They’re fast forwarding, so they’re not paying attention. They realize they’re there to be sold to. People know why they go to a user conference. You don’t need to make that your priority: “Oh we need to tell them more about our product launch.” They know that that’s going to happen. Nobody is surprised that “Hey, we have some new stuff to tell you about our company. Shocking! We’re at your users event.”
However, if you can give them an experience– you can give them an experience that actually impacts their career, they meet people who they could hire. They meet people who could hire them. They meet people that they could go into business with, or their companies could do some sort of a joint venture. That is when they remember your event and say, “That is the best event of the year.”
Listen to the whole interview here:
About Thom Singer
Thom Singer comes from an eclectic background working in sales, marketing and business development roles for Fortune 500 Companies, Law Firms, and entrepreneurial ventures — these days Thom is a professional speaker, trainer, consultant and the author of ten books on the power of business relationships, business development, entrepreneurship, legal marketing, and presentation skills. He is also the host of the popular “Cool Things Entrepreneurs Do” podcast. Thom speaks regularly at business and association conferences around the United States and beyond – and has presented to over 450 audiences during his career as a speaker. Thom and his wife, Sara, make their home in Austin, Texas and are the parents of two highly spirited daughters.