I was thinking some more about how often we miss the opportunity to help the people we bring together connect with each other. Then I heard about Autreat, a a conference run by and for people with autism. As one of the many things they do to make the conference helpful and productive for participants, the organizers give them the option to wear red/yellow/green “Interaction Signal Badges.”
Red = I do not want anyone to approach or interact with me. You can reply to questions I ask you but that’s it.
Yellow = I will interact with people I already know but not with unfamiliar people (“we’ve met online” = unfamiliar)
Green = I’m interested in interacting but I find it difficult to initiate interaction, so I’d be happy if others initiate interaction with me
The badge is just one of a zillion oft-overlooked elements we control when we bring people together, one of the things we could pay attention to if we really want to help people feel comfortable and create the kinds of connections they’d like to create. The TED conference has massive badges with names printed in 32-point (I think) font, giant pictures, and “talk to me about” conversation starters. Other great conferences go in the opposite direction, inviting a tiny number of attendees, having no one wear a nametag, and getting the social juices flowing with singing and poetry and time at the pub late into the night.
The problem with most conferences is that they do none of these things. The organizers act as if putting on a conference involves packing the agenda with high-profile (often concurrent!) speakers and having people sit through those talks, with opportunity to randomly “network” in huge, personality-free reception halls. The organizers spend 98% of time on the “program” and 2% of time on the steps (big and small) that would make it twice (or 10 times) as likely that people would interact.
Susan Cain recently reminded the world that there’s nothing particularly normal or special about being extroverted and about feeling totally comfortable in a massive crowd of folks and striking up new conversations. So here’s a hint to people who bring people together: almost everyone would rather have more substantive, productive and fun conversations with almost everyone else, and almost everyone finds it difficult to start brand new conversations. Help them!