Improving Long Tech Events: #5 Priority

#5 Priority: Intentional Relationship Building

Even though Relationship Building wasn’t the top item on my list of ways to improve long tech events, the most valuable thing I’ve gotten out of unconferences and other long tech events is the new relationships that started at those events.

At least one other person also sees immense value in events organized and run to effectively build relationships; he wrote this about his experience:

“…I drove to Philadelphia for a two day conference without having any idea what the topics would be, who would be speaking, and what the format would be…Before you try to sell me the Brooklyn Bridge, I should tell you that, it was one of the most innovative and eye-opening professional experiences I’ve had…I easily established triple the number of new contacts, and formed stronger relationships with them, than at any other conference I’ve been to…”

power of participationNetworking = Relationship Building

It can be challenging to explain to a doubter why relationship building, or networking, at events has high value. I especially like Adrian Segar’s presentation of why talking to people you don’t already know is a worthwhile part of events, as described below:

“…Whether the benefits are intangible or concrete, we all know that there is some kind of calculation that goes on when a potential attendee decides whether to attend an event…here’s a core component of Conference 2.0

Conversations => Relationships => Value

Meetings provide wonderful opportunities for conversations…for all but very small meetings, the number of conversations doesn’t scale with event size…at a large conference it’s often harder to find the people you really want to talk to than at a smaller, more focused event…Conference 1.0 sessions are not designed to foster conversations. Conversations are relegated to breaks and socials. Compare this with Conference 2.0 designs, which excel at providing opportunities for relevant conversations…Let’s take Conferences That Work as an example. This conference design starts with initial roundtables that not only provide a structured forum for attendees to meet and learn about each other’s affiliations, interests, experience, and expertise but also effectively uncover the topics that people want to discuss and share. Within a couple of hours, every attendee has the initial introductions and information necessary to go out and start the right conversations about the right topics with the right people. Other Conference 2.0 designs encourage fruitful conversations by giving attendees the ability to meet around topics that they choose during the event…”

[Segar’s “Conference 2.0” appears to be pretty close to my concept of well-designed participant-driven events — BW]

Networking can mean various things to different people. For the purposes of this post, networking refers to people connecting with other people. It’s definitely not computer hardware or software networks I’m thinking about here…

twitter followersPeople often look at networking as a competition — how many people can they be connected to on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or on some other online service. Another way many approach networking is, “Who can I get in my network who can do something for me?” If you don’t enjoy networking, maybe your view of it is, “somebody told me I need to do more networking,” “most jobs these days are gotten through networking, not through submitting online applications,” or even, “why did I let my friend drag me to this networking event?” Maybe you can look at it differently if you think of it as “relationship building” instead of “networking.”

The equation should always be: Networking = Relationship Building.

never eat aloneThe book about relationship building that helped me realize that networking is best thought of as relationship building is “Never Eat Alone” by Keith Ferrazzi. It was first published in 2005, but an updated version was published in 2014. If you’re not good at networking or if relationship building is no fun for you, I highly recommend it as a starting point for learning to enjoy and get more out of relationship building.

YMMV: Not All Long Tech Events Are Equal

Not every long tech event has relationship building as a stated or implied goal. Some events will be offered strictly as an opportunity to get training or certification you need or want, others are primarily vendor opportunities to introduce or demo their products, mainly in an effort to convince you to buy them. Maybe you’re going to a weekend workshop to build a 3D printer or another tech item, and networking wasn’t a goal for the workshop organizers.

But every long tech event you decide is worth your time and money is also an event where you should spend time and energy building new relationships. There’s a good chance a relationship with some of the people getting trained or certified with you would be enjoyable and mutually beneficial. Your relationship with a vendor could turn into a friendship between people who have common interests, or maybe you’ll get a job with that vendor or hire the vendor’s rep you met at the event. Someone else who built a 3D printer at that weekend workshop would be a great person to commiserate with when your printer or their’s isn’t working well after the event…

The bottom line is that every long tech event you go to is certain to have a few people you’d enjoy getting to know. Even if the event doesn’t do anything to specifically encourage networking, you’ll benefit from making sure you get to know a couple new people at the event.

Intentional Relationship Building: Have A Plan

have a planNew relationships are most likely to be built at an event if the events wrangler and other organizers incorporate that goal into their plan. They can structure the event prep to encourage and facilitate relationship building. They should design the event to make it easy for every speaker, attendee or participant to connect with like-minded people. The organizers may also make it easy for people to connect with each other before the event, or after the event even if they didn’t get a person’s contact info. Below are a few relationship building ideas for organizers to consider:

  • Pre-event, have web page promoting relationship building and write a post about the topic
  • Set up and promote an event networking tool or service to enable people to connect before and during the event
  • Send registrants an email with details for connecting with people before, at and after event
  • Provide name tags, greet by each person by name, welcome them to the event, confirm contact information, check off on list or add name to list
  • Give everyone 20 “event cards” with their name and preferred contact info
  • Set the expectation that everyone at the event gets to know at least five new people whom they’ll contact after event
  • During unconferences and other relatively informal events have an intro session where everyone says their name and 3 things they’re highly interested in
  • Encourage people to introduce themselves in sessions (if group is informal and small enough)
  • Encourage hallway conversations and suggest people ask others for their “event cards” or contact info

I highly recommend that participants or attendees, before they get to the event, develop their own plan for intentionally connecting with new people. Here are action items I include in my relationship building plan for events:

  • To the extent possible, research speakers or session leaders to know what you have in common; figure out  reason for person to consider building relationship with you, especially trying to come up with a way you can help them
  • Connect with at least two speakers or session leaders (including before the event, if possible)
  • Connect with at least twenty participants or attendees (before the event if possible) and connect with at least five of them after event
  • Get one of the twenty new connections to help you organize a small group (six to twelve people) restaurant outing during event
  • Ask the twenty new connections to connect you with one other really cool person they met at the event
  • Talk with people at the event about being involved in follow-up events, related events, same event next year, etc

Relationships Not Only Reason For Long Tech Events, But…

I’m not trying to say new relationships are the only reason to go to a conference, unconference, training class or weekend workshop. Other things I’ve gotten out of long tech events are:

  • Training and certification

    led throwies

    LED Throwies

  • Opportunity to learn more about topics of interest to me
  • Practical experience of making something, e.g. LED Throwies and laser long exposure photos
  • New resources or customers
  • Fun experiences, like riding on Pehr’s remote controlled go-kart, playing many games of Werewolf, a group Friday Fish Fry and brewery tour at Lakefront Brewery, and meeting and talking with the pilots of the Solar Impulse aircraft
  • BarCampMadison 2008 Bob LED profile pic A

    Laser long exposure photo

    Understanding of what it takes to put on an event for medium to large groups

  • Knowledge that, if I want to do the work, I can create from scratch an event that lots of people will enjoy
  • Opportunity to get better acquainted with another city

The long and short of it is that people have many reasons to go to long tech events, but building relationships may be one of the most valuable long term benefits you take away, even if it wasn’t your primary incentive to go.


Posts in this “Improving Long Tech Events” series:

Making Long Tech Events Better
Improving Long Tech Events: Priorities
Improving Long Tech Events: #1 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #2 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #3 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #4 Priority
Improving Long Tech Events: #5 Priority
#6 Priority: Follow-Up For Greater Impact
Priority #7: Storytelling & Documentation
Improving Long Tech Events: Priorities #8 – #13


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