This is the first guest-post by Ana Silva, specialist in Enterprise 2.0 and social media, and scholarly on serendipitous matter (more on Ana at the end of the article).
Serendipity, the art of looking for something and ending up finding something else, at times more valuable than the thing you were looking for in the first place, is generally seen as something that happens in our personal lives, as portrayed in Hollywood movies.
Truth is that this interesting concept has been making its way into businesses, especially in the field of innovation (just think of “accidental discoveries” such as post-it notes) and has long been present in the world of the Web with services such as StumbleUpon. In fact, Eric Schmidt calls Google search a “serendipity engine”.
The notion that serendipity can be stimulated or facilitated is increasingly cited by authors and futurists such as Ross Dawson or John Hagel. In his latest book, The Power of Pull (Amazon), Hagel stated that “Serendipity can be shaped: We can make choices that will increase our ability to attract people and resources to us that we never knew existed, leading to serendipitous encounters that prove enormously valuable”.
Conferences and other events can be great places for increasing our probability of engaging into serendipitous encounters, with other people and also with new ideas, especially those in emerging arenas that attract a diverse set of participants and speakers.
While the participants should attend with a proactive mindset towards serendipitous happenings (it’s for their own benefit after all), it’s the organizer’s duty to design a conference experience that increases the possibility of serendipity happening.
Ideas for event organizers
- Strive for diversity in speakers: invite diversified speakers, offering different perspectives or experiences on a given topic (this can be of course easier for more broad events than very theme-focused conferences). E.g.: if your event caters to the academic world or a specific industry, invite non-academic speakers or people working in other fields/industries that can provide a radically different point of view, spark new ideas and collaborations or just enrich the content being shared at the conference
- Curate your audience: try as much as possible to appeal to a diverse crowd of attendees (don’t confuse this with trying to appeal to everybody) but also the “right” attendees. More than half of the value that your event will be providing comes from the new connections born during breaks and networking time, though these aren’t just any type of connections. You need participants from different walks of life that can provide useful to each other and be relevant for future collaborations. You should make the effort to have valuable people on and off stage alike
- Use Twitter as a serendipity engine: conversations on Twitter before, during and after your event can be a valid channel to connect with other community members (past/present/future participants), so make sure you have an “official” Twitter hashtag and that it’s present in all your communications. Stimulate its use by sharing interesting content (the kind that you would like to read yourself, not [just] marketing yada-yada). Ask questions, involve speakers (many of them are probably on twitter too), get involved in [useful] customer service but also listen to what your community is saying (and act accordingly). During the event provide Internet connection to make it easier for the conversation continue
- Design the physical space to favor encounters: provide coffee areas that are comfortable and attractive for people to hang out, not too spacious, not too small (coffee is a powerful link between people… alcohol too but that might be inconvenient). Create meeting points with appropriate signage for those that need a reference area to find each other. South by Southwest creates a huge “Lego pit”, an area with Lego building blocks, for people to meet each other… and entertain themselves or their kids if they arrive early. [more on the Lego pit here]
- Facilitate introductions: not everyone is a natural born networker. Sometimes having a searchable database of the attendees or suggesting 10 people to meet at the event (matching people by interests, activities, etc) can kickstart encounters. The best introductions though are made by humans. Have your community manager (or someone else from your team that knows the audience quite well) to work as a “Concierge” during the conference. Participants could tell her what kind of fellow attendees they want to meet and the concierge can make the appropriate introductions in situ
- Help break the ice: if the group is small enough consider changing the display of the room and having everyone presenting themselves. If this is not possible, simply imagine some ice breaking exercise that helps put people more at ease
- Game serendipity: very much in line with the previous point, people love games and this can also help drive serendipity by stimulating interaction. E.g.: At UXLX, each attendee got a deck of cards with interesting info on one particular UX-related personality. There were different cards but everyone got a certain amount of the same one. In order to get the full deck of cards -a sort of souvenir of the event- participants needed to talk to each other to trade their cards, helping break the ice
- Give serendipity time: plan many session breaks that are long enough for attendees to have time to socialize & meet each other
Ideas for attendees
- Seek diversity: the world of conferences and events, once “dominated” by the same old events, is now much more varied. Meeting people from diverse backgrounds in a setting where different perspectives give rise to interesting conversations can be a powerful serendipity engine. Participate in new or different events which could provide content and connections that are complementary to your job or industry. Even attend events that are totally unrelated and could be a source of serendipitous inspiration!
- Prepare in advance: check if there is a Twitter hashtag for the event and browse through the tweets prior to attending. See if anyone in the tweetstream catches your attention and check their profile
- Turn the serendipity engine on: during the conference and in the days after continue checking the event’s Twitter hashtag and other online streams for interesting connections
- Step out of your comfort zone: avoid sticking the whole event with your familiar group of acquaintances and instead go speak to strangers during the coffee breaks and other pauses
- Change seats: in a long event with different sessions try seating in different parts of the venue for each session, preferably close to strangers
- Get social: to facilitate serendipity you’ll need to get social! This means taking advantage of all opportunities to engage into conversations with other attendees: mingle during the breaks and go to the dinner and after-party events
Ana Silva (twitter, blog, linkedin) divides her time between strategizing collaboration and social media initiatives for a large manufacturing company, teaching Enterprise 2.0 at the Oporto Business School, and organizing conferences on the impact of social media on areas such as citizenship and the future of work.