Organizing an event is hard. You have to think about so many things - marketing, logistics, budget, attendees, speakers. Since you're here on this site, hopefully you're up to adding another item to your list - thinking about how you can make it easier for your attendees to interact with each other. To help you do that, I've put together this list of ways you can achieve that across the whole event experience:
The standard name tag is just that - a name. That lets your attendees know how to greet each other and remember the names of who they met, but it doesn't do much as a conversation starter. Here are ways you can enhance your name tags:
You could give each person a set of small collectible items, like a set of buttons about a particular conference topic or cards with the speaker's faces. Distribute different sets so that people are encouraged to ask for collectibles from each other to vary their set.
The standard conference room setup is rooms of chairs. However, that option is the worst for encouraging attendee interaction. First, that layout visually enforces the idea that the audience is there only to watch and interact with the speaker - not with everyone else in the room. Second, people often avoid sitting right next to each other until the room is packed (due to societal norms). Finally, there's just something awkward about turning your head completely to explicitly start a conversation with a stranger-neighbor. Even if attendees do get to chatting, there's a max of two people (one on each side) that they'll interact with.
Instead, consider oval tables (like these from Webstock). The oval tables encourage interaction because attendees are naturally looking at each other while also making it easy to comfortably watch the speakers.
Sometimes attendees still need a little help in starting up conversation. If you're using tables for seating, you can put centerpieces on the table to help - like a box of relevant facts/quizzes/questions or a collection of little puzzles/toys. If your seating is rows of chairs, then you can tape conversation questions to the back of each chair (“Ask the person next to you the last place they traveled to”).
Don't do a continuous stream of talks all day. Have at least a brief break after each talk, and have a longer 15-break every 1-2 hours, ideally with snacks. It gives people a chance to discuss what they just saw and possibly meet new people.
An attendee often finds it easier to approach a speaker than a random other attendee, because they know a lot about the speaker and can ask them a specific question. Thus, when your conference has more speakers, there are more people that are easier to approach. You can increase the number of speakers at your conference by holding a lightning talks session (and even do sign-ups at the event itself) or carving out time and space for attendee-led Birds of a Feather (BoF) sessions.
At the beginning of the conference or even at the beginning of each talk, give the attendees 5 minutes to meet their neighbor, and give them a specific question like "What's the last app you coded?" or "What's something new you learned this month?"
Many conferences have time carved out in their schedule for "networking" or "mingling", and all they provide is a room and snacks. Here are ways you can add structure to those events, from least to most effort:
At a small, intimate event, you might actually have the time to do a full round of introductions. The introduction should include their name plus additional fodder for conversation - like what they do and why they're there. If you have time, they can also answer a creative question like "what's your spirit animal?" I always do a full round of introductions for events with less than 50 attendees and I've even been at a conference that did a rapid-fire version (name plus 3 keywords) for a room of 300.
Once a networking event is fully under way, an MC can grab a mic, hush the room, and encourage anyone to express what they're looking for - e.g. looking for a job, looking to hire, looking for a co-founder, looking for collaborators. This structure works best at an event that has too many people to do a full round of introductions and likely has a lot of folks that fall into the "looking for something" category.
This game is a fun way for attendees to say a few sentences to a couple dozen others (e.g. "Do you have a tattoo?" or "Have you ever been to Europe?"). To run it, create a networking bingo board (like this one), print out enough copies for your attendees, distribute the boards with pens at the event and give them a deadline for completing the boards. You can also give a fun little prize if you collect all the boards in a box and pull one out at random. I love running this game at the beginning of an event, as it keeps early attendees occupied while waiting for the rest to arrive and starts the event on a social note.
Based on speed dating, the general idea behind speed networking is to give attendees a few minutes with another attendee, enough time to figure out if they'd want to chat later. Here are two variations of many:
Many conferences hold after-parties at bars and hope that free alcohol will provide all the social lubrication that attendees need to get to know each other. It's true that alcohol helps us be more social by lowering our inhibitions, but there are drawbacks to over-reliance on alcohol: 1) many people don't drink alcohol for a variety of reasons 2) too much inhibition-lowering can lead to boundary-crossing and code of conduct violations. So how can you put on an after-party where people *can* get to know each other without needing alcohol? Here are a few ideas:
Provide an "un-bar" - another room with a bar serving tea, juice, shakes, hot cocoa.
If you do also provide a standard bar, consider giving each person a certain number of alcohol tokens and ask bartenders to watch for people cheating that system.
Keep the music volume low enough so that people can easily hear each other. Remember that your attendees may be from foreign countries or talking to people with accents different from theirs, so they don't need the extra obstacle of struggling to hear someone while also getting to know them.
Don't overfill the venue so that there's barely any space to move - that makes it harder for people to end conversations and find new people to meet.
When you're not relying on alcohol for networking, it's even more important for an after-party to include conversation starters such as:
Some attendees will be excited to converse with each other - but others might be exhausted by conversation and crave other ways to interact. Here are some that I've enjoyed at conferences:
After a day of sitting in rooms, some attendees will be itching to move around - so they might be most excited by a physical activity. Keep in mind your liability if someone gets hurt, and for activities where people's bodies are mingling, remember that not everyone will be comfortable with that. Consider what will work best for your crowd, and of course, every activity you offer should be optional.
Do you have other ideas for this list? Send a pull request or issue on Github. Thanks!