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SaaS Writing Consultation & Production

That Subtle Mix of Tech That Makes In-Person Conferences Better

Matthew Guay

Freitag, 17. Mai 2024

Slack, Sheets, and Slido—or a similar mix of apps—can make people feel included and help them make connections. Everything else at the conference rises and falls on inclusion.

It’s rather terrifying to be the new person in the room—perhaps the reason that the first day at a new school still pops up in nightmares decades after graduation.

Showing up solo to a new conference—or even a lower-stakes local meetup or event where you don’t know anyone—evokes the same emotions. Am I in the right place? What do I do, just go up and talk to random people? What if everyone else here is better educated, more qualified, more worthy of attendance than me?

Then you work up the courage, walk up to someone, stick out your hand and say hi, and if you’re lucky the ice is broken. Now, at least, you know one person. And it snowballs from there.

One attends meetups and conferences to learn, ideally, from industry experts. Yet deep down we’re seeking connection. It’s not that your next job or client will come from the conference, that you’re attending the conference in hopes that the next time you’re in NYC or SF you’ll have someone to grab lunch with, and yet the thought can’t escape your mind. At the very least, you want to join in discussions with others who share your obscure passions. We’re social creatures. That’s why you’re at the conference in the first place; talks, after all, are a dime a dozen on YouTube.

Which means if you’re running a conference, you need to solve that dilemma, the “cold start problem” for attendees. How do you help people make connections and feel like part of the group at your events?

After attending the Information Architecture Conference (IAC) followed, back-to-back, by Write the Docs, I noticed a few patterns. You can do a few things as a conference organizer to make the in-person experience better and more likely to turn into longer-term connections.

Here are the best ideas from those events—ways to make your event more than just talks.

Schedule smaller, non-talk events

How do you make sure everyone knows someone the first day of the conference? Start the conference a day early with a newcomers dinner.

That’s how the IAC worked. A week or so before the event, attendees received an email letting them know that if this was their first time attending they could sign up for a welcome dinner. It was a laissez faire opt-in system. A handful of volunteers offered to host, each got a reservation at a nearby restaurant, and added the name to a Google Sheet. First-timers could then add their name under one of the restaurants to reserve a slot.

The night before the conference started, I went to the lobby and asked around until I found my group. Someone in my group asked everyone what their superpower was, and a half hour later we all knew something about each other, had dinner without eating alone in a new city, and the next morning had a few friendly faces you could pick out in the crowd.

IAC additionally had a 5K run scheduled one morning, a poster night to showcase your work, and a game and karaoke night to just have fun. Each was optional, opt-in, and perfect ways to join in smaller groups.

Write the Docs had a more learning-focused approach with opt-in unconference sessions that had a similar get-to-know-people vibe. Anyone could add a sticky note to a whiteboard to start an unconference talk at a numbered table (with a volunteer copying the talks to a shared Google Sheet). Then, anyone else could show up to the table at the appointed time, ready to discuss D&D or hardware documentation or writing apps or anything else someone thought was worth an unconference.

Use chat to spark IRL connections

You’re at an event. You should be able to just go up and talk to people. Yet, who should you talk to?

Chat can bridge the gap and make that first “Hi, I’m name” introduction far easier.

Write the Docs had new channels in their existing community Slack account for the event. IAC had a new Discord account that every attendee was invited to prior to the conference, with channels for everything from talk-focused discussions like #taxonomy and #ethics to activity-focused #food-and-drink and #offsite-activity channels.

You’d think an in-person event is the one time when you wouldn’t want Slack, and yet having chat as a background layer tied the events together far better than post-talk announcements. A bit of tech made it more likely you’d have IRL conversations.

So you’re in a talk at 11:45AM, and tacos are on your mind. You open Discord and ask if anyone else wants tacos. A few reaction emojis and replies later, and you’ve got a lunch crew. Or, perhaps, no one replies—but you see another message about a group grabbing some other lunch option, so you ask if you can join in. Sure, you could go up to random people and invite them to lunch, but that’s a bit awkward. When other attendees self-select to join, you’ve got a much easier way to plan meals and make connections.

And with everyone in a Slack or Discord group, you didn’t need to ask for anyone’s contact info to stay in touch. You could DM folks where to meet for a meal, say, or just as easily DM to say you liked their talk or wanted to connect on another platform.

Turn connections into a game

Perhaps the event that forced the most in-person interaction, though, was a local startup event I attended in 2023 that was built around a game—complete with a custom mobile app.

You’d show up, download the app, and sign into the event. There, you’d add details about your startup idea—ideally your real, existing company (including name, logo, industry, and one-sentence description), though if you were at the idea stage that was fine as well. Other attendees’ companies would start filling up the list as people arrived.

Then you’d get virtual dollars in your app to “invest” in other startups. You could “buy” shares in any company attending, with the price going up based on demand. The company with the highest valuation along with the individual with the best return on investment would win the event.

It was just for fun. You could sit on the sidelines, or show up late for the afternoon talks and get the same core informational value from the event. Or, honestly, you could have blindly invested in companies that looked interesting in the app. But if you wanted to play the game well, you needed to work the floor. And, sure, you could always walk up to anyone at an event and ask them about their company, but now you had a reason to do so. You also quickly learned to hone your elevator pitch as you gave it over and over to different people in the span of a few hours—a skill that, perhaps, would help you make connections at the next event even without the game’s motivation.

Anonymize question and answer sessions

Question and answer sessions are another area where tech can improve the IRL experience. With a traditional open floor setup, you need volunteers to run mics around the room, and questions often take up longer than the answer. At best you’ll end up with 2-3 questions answered; at worst, no question will add to what you already learned from the talk.

Write the Docs swapped that out with Slido-powered questions at the end of each talk. You could submit questions during a talk, limited to a short sentence, or upvote someone else’s question if they’d asked something similar. Then, once a talk wrapped up, a moderator would read off top questions for the speaker to answer.

What you lost in context for the questions you gained in getting far more answers answered clearly in less time. And you have to assume that some people who wouldn’t have been brave enough to grab a mic and ask a question out loud felt confident enough to add their anonymous question on the Slido form. It was yet another instance of a bit of tech making the real-world experience better.

Give people a reason to return

Talks, alone, are likely what got you to sign up for a conference in the first place. But you learned from them this year—and, perhaps, next year it’s worth trying a new event to see what you learn there.

That is, unless you made friends and had a good enough time that you want to return next year for more. That requires an event that solves the cold start problem, that makes you feel included and helps you stay connected throughout the event.

It requires a bit more planning and coordination, and ironically a bit more tech, to help make connections.

But if your conference makes that first conversation easier, your attendees will have a much better time—enough that they’ll start thinking about how to attend your next conference or meetup instead of making this a one-time thing.

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©2024 Pith and Pip LLC

Let's write your software's story, together.

©2024 Pith and Pip LLC