Giving people permission to connect

by Adrian Segar

bus passengers 2851696372_3b9189dc60_o
On the bus
Sitting on the chartered hotel bus on the first day of the conference, I noticed something. I was presenting at EIBTM: a huge hosted buyer tradeshow, held in Barcelona every year with the principal purpose of acting as a matchmaking service between venues and meeting planners. At EIBTM, making connections is why people come, spending hundreds of millions of dollars and over a thousand person-years in the process.

The bus was full of event industry professionals. Yet hardly anyone on my bus was talking to anyone else.

When I got on the bus, I sat next to a woman of about my own age and said good morning. From the tone of her reply she was clearly not interested in talking to me. As the bus crawled through morning traffic, I thought about what an opportunity was being squandered. I seriously considered inviting everyone to introduce themselves to their seatmates.

<stands up>
“Good morning everyone! I’m Adrian Segar. I’d like to invite all of you to introduce yourselves to the person sitting in the seat next to you. And the people sitting across the aisle too, if you like.”
<sits down>

I would have been just a crazy American doing something a little weird—something that doesn’t bother me much these days.

I was tempted to do this.

But I didn’t.

Can we talk?
We are often victims of our social conventions. Sure, some of the people on the bus, including my seatmate, may well have had good reasons for not wanting to chat. And, yes, most of us don’t want every stranger who sits next to us on our travels engaging us in conversation. But we were not on public transport. Every person on my bus that day was being paid, one way or another, to meet with each other. Yet here we were, sitting together and ignoring our neighbors.

I bet that if I had bobbed up that morning and given my little speech, many of the people on the bus would have grinned sheepishly and introduced themselves to their neighbors—and some of them would have discovered they had things of value to share. Perhaps business cards would have been exchanged; perhaps some follow-up meetings would have been set up.

Environment affects behavior
Interestingly, at the trade show itself, people acted differently. Empty seating was hard to find during the hosted buyer meals and I had to share tables with strangers. Each time, everyone introduced themselves right away and interesting information and business cards were exchanged. Same people, different behavior!

Give people permission to connect
We are all social animals under the right circumstances. Given the increasing importance of incorporating participation and connection into conferences, it’s vital that we get better at giving people ways to connect that make it more comfortable to meet and engage new peers. Just being a good host—explicitly giving people the opportunity and permission to introduce themselves to each other is often all that’s needed. This may seem hokey, but it’s effective. I’m sure you can think of occasions where a small ritual like this would have made it easier for you to meet people.

Giving ourselves permission to act
I’m sorry I didn’t perform my little introduction that day. If I’m at EIBTM next year under similar circumstances, I’m going to do it. (I’ll let you know what happens.) And if you find yourself in a situation where you’re able to host connection, take a deep breath, Say Yes, and do it! I think you’ll like the results–and some of the people you invite to connect will too.

Photo attribution: Flickr user seattlemunicipalarchives

  • http://twitter.com/dshiao Dennis Shiao

    Adrian: great post. In the future, perhaps EIBTM (and other show planners) can create formal programs to facilitate this. For instance, hire a host to stand at the front of the bus (with a microphone) and welcome them to the show. Then, encourage riders to introduce themselves to their seat neighbors. I’ve found that a warm and inviting host can go a long way towards facilitating discussion and networking (i.e. get people to loosen up).

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      What a good idea Dennis! Formalizing what ran through my mind would be a simple way to jump start making connections—and I think it would create a more intimate start to the event than being disgorged onto a huge trade show floor with 30,000 people. I’ll forward this post on to my contact at Reed Exhibitions.

  • Sue Pelletier

    I’ve noticed this before, too, and have always wondered what the psychology behind it is. It feels really awkward when it happens, but often people don’t seem to feel that it would be appropriate to break the ice for some reason. I think Dennis’ idea would definitely make a difference!

    • http://www.conferencesthatwork.com/ Adrian Segar

      In this case, Sue, maybe what happened is that the social norms of how we generally interact with others while sitting on a European public bus inhibited the reality that we were all event professionals with a common destination and shared purposes sitting on a private chartered bus. It’s hard to rationally overcome habitual behaviors that are triggered by seemingly familiar environments. I bet Daniel Kahneman (of Thinking Fast and Slow fame) could shed some light…

  • Maureen McKeon

    Hi Adrian, I enjoy all your posts, but “Giving people permission to connect” really hit home! I referenced your article in my blog post: http://www.seasiteblog.com/2013/01/the-key-to-making-connections-get-off-the-bus/

    • http://www.segar.com Adrian Segar

      Thanks Maureen! No question, having people meet in an unusual venue like a cruise ship offers lots of opportunities to make valuable connections.

  • Jennifer Collins,CMP

    I find this to be even more common in our digital age. With heads tucked into iphones, ipads and other gadgets, many often exude a “do not disturb” aura. Whether in an airport, a hotel lobby or other place, I think it’s a missed opportunity in general, not just in our profession. You simply never quite know the impact of a new connection.

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