In an age when loneliness is the norm, creating a sense of connection among attendees is a way to make an event unforgettable. No matter its main focus, whether it’s leadership, business, human resources, public policy, etc., there is nothing more moving or inspiring than when attendees feel a sense of kinship with one another — it can create a bond felt for years beyond just the single event. But trying to create those moments can feel daunting.
As a company that exists in the mental health space, our team at Shift Collab works hard to create experiences that build trust and connection in our workshops, trainings, and even during keynote speeches. Along the way, we’ve learned that crafting such events is actually much more straightforward than it seems.
Here are four key things I’ve learned about fostering a sense of connection among audiences and creating unforgettable events.
1. Encourage a Different Seating Plan.
Seat people based on their actual interests, like hobbies or big goals, vs. who they already know. By mixing people up, you can create a game of challenging attendees to figure out why they are seated where they are, sparking an inquisitive push to learn more about those they are sitting with. Mastermind Talks, one of the most sought-after entrepreneurship events in the world (it has a lower acceptance rate than Harvard), does this with incredible results. This can work in meals, plenary sessions, or workshops. Try it, you’ll be amazed.
2. Shine the Spotlight on Attendees.
The primary focus of events doesn’t need to always revolve around keynotes and workshops that link to theme. In fact, most people will remember moments of connection far more than the workshops long after the event. It’s about adding talking points to social events. This will encourage attendees to interact with each other in a meaningful way. For example, at a meal, place a card at the centre of each table with a question, a conversation starter, that is both challenging but also freeing, such as “If you woke up one day and forgot your entire past except for one memory, what would it be and why?” Invite each member of the table to share their memory one at a time, and encourage them to take as long or as little as they need to do so. The results will be extraordinary.
3. Focus on the Little Things.
I’ve seen countless tears and hugs among strangers after they write a letter or postcard to themselves as part of a reflection exercise during a conference. A dear friend of mine, Blake Fly, has become somewhat famous for hosting “Thank U Parties” where he has 30 people over for dinner and asks them to write three thank you cards: One to someone they haven’t spoken to in awhile, another to someone that’s helped them a great deal in the last year, and one to themselves. It’s a simple concept, but creating that opportunity for reflection and then inviting people to read them aloud can be quite powerful.
4. Hire Speakers and Hosts Who Are Open and Honest, Themselves.
Ensure the mouthpieces — speakers, hosts, and staff — at the event welcome a philosophy of openness and vulnerability. They need to be excited and champion this kind of connection just like you. By hiring like-minded speakers and hosts with the same goal of creating genuine and honest experiences, this will help attendees feel safe and encourage them to speak up and be themselves.
In the end, remember that the stories of your attendees are just as interesting as anyone else in the room. Celebrate them by creating specific opportunities for them to share and connect in unique ways. This will ensure that your event will remain memorable for years to come.
Jordan Axani is a mental wellness and leadership expert, and the co-founder of Shift Collab, one of Canada’s largest therapy and mental health education firms.
He shows organization and individuals how to have simple, relatable, and actionable conversations on mental wellness. He is a master at helping people take off the “masks” they wear around other, and build trusting, safe, and desirable workplace cultures that can attract and retain top talent.
Interested in learning more about Jordan and what he can bring to your next event? Email us at [email protected].