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Associations Now

Inner Circle Envy

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, July 2007, Feature

By: Lynne Waymon

How event organizers can give a boost to those not on the inside.
Summary: What can event organizers do to peel the wallflowers off the wall? How can meeting planners make sure that those who aren’t as outgoing as some of their peers feel included in the convention and connected to other attendees? With a little foresight and planning, associations can do plenty to help the bashful break out.

You’ve seen them at your conferences. They stand in line at the bar alone. They nibble the finger foods by themselves. After milling around for about 15 or 20 minutes—what seems to them an excruciatingly long time—they head back to their hotel room, maybe to decide which education sessions to attend the next day.

To them, every conference has an in crowd—an inner circle—and those standing around the ring. And it’s not just first timers with this perception. It’s hard to overstate just how tremendous an opportunity loss this is.

Event organizers have a slightly different perspective. They know that their conferences don’t have a single in crowd or inner circle, but many different ones. All the outsiders need to do is find a little room in one of them and, your members being the welcoming type, there is no more thought of insiders and outsiders. Many people will find these toeholds on their own, but for many others, you need to design a conference that gets them involved and engaged with other participants.

Looking in from Outside

“She’s part of the in crowd.”

“I’ve been a member a long time, but I still feel like a newcomer.”

“What does somebody have to do to be part of the inner circle?”

We hear these questions a lot. As speakers and writers who deal specifically with the development of professional networking skills, we often encounter people who wonder how to join the inner circle and become part of the in crowd at a large meeting. We try to help them, but as organizers of large meetings, you can make our job easier by designing a meeting that creates a sense of belonging and ownership among your members.

In our experience, we estimate 85 percent of your members do not feel comfortable and competent with the relationship-building skills needed to take full advantage of the circle of contacts that association membership offers. At receptions, meetings, and conferences, they wonder and worry, “Who should I talk to?” “How can I possibly remember so many names?” “I won’t have anything important to say.” According to The Shyness Institute at Stanford University, more than 50 percent of Americans say they feel shy and uncomfortable in a variety of business and social settings. Our research, conducted at a wide variety of association and corporate events, shows that 66 percent of people are unsure of how to best answer “What do you do?” and 85 percent say they don’t know what to talk about to build a relationship.

Stages of Relationship Growth

So what can you do to help? First, we recommend that you and your staff become knowledgeable about how interpersonal relationships start and grow, so you can design activities and events that help people move professionally and intentionally toward richer professional connections. When you offer more ways for all your members to have meaningful interactions, the gap between those who feel a part of things and those who feel outside the inner circle will diminish.

Relationships grow in stages—six stages that represent the growing trust your members have in each other (see diagram at right). As you see in the diagram, accidents float around outside the five concentric circles. You’re in seat 14A. Next to you, in 14B, is an “accident.” An accident is a person you have no regular way of seeing. You might have a perfectly delightful conversation, but nothing will happen in the future, unless you make it happen.

Inside the outermost circle of the bullseye are acquaintances. These are people your members could find again if they had to because they know someone in common. Think of the architect you met at your cousin’s wedding. Because you don’t have regular contact, it’s more challenging to build the relationship, but you could find him again through your cousin.

Inside the next circle are associates. All of your members are associates because they’ve joined the same group—your association. At your meetings, they see each other repeatedly. Our studies show that it takes six contacts—six good conversations—before two people know and trust in each other enough to go out on a limb, put their good names on the line, or go to bat for each other. So your challenge is to help people make the most of those repeated contacts. Just because people are associates, it doesn’t mean they have a relationship. Until they begin to act as resources for each other, they won’t join each other’s inner circle.

Once your members have acted by exchanging something of value—a tip, a resource, some information, an introduction—they become actors. As actors, they actively swap with each other and can begin to experience each other’s character and competence and eventually trust each other. People who trust each other are an inner circle.

Once trust is established, your members become advocates for each other. An advocate says, “Dave would be great for the awards committee.” Or “Let’s ask Susan to run for the board.” Or “Get Juanita to introduce the keynoter. She’s so comfortable in front of a crowd.” An advocate knows her contact so well that when she sees an opportunity or a resource that would appeal to that person, she takes action. Advocates trust in each other’s character and competence so completely that they will unhesitatingly pass each other’s names along and bring each other into their circles. Advocates can give vivid examples of each other in action: serving a client, saving the day, or solving a problem.

Finally, in the center circle, your members will have a few allies. Allies are on their “personal board of directors.” Allies will do all they can to help each other reach their goals. They will seek opportunities for each other. They’ll celebrate when things go well and commiserate when things go wrong. Allies experience a high degree of confidentiality and always tell each other the truth.

Unfortunately, the chitchat during open networking time typically goes like this: “Hi, how are you?” “Good! How are you?” “Not bad. What’s new? “Not much. What’s new with you?” In that oft-repeated conversation, there’s no content to build a relationship on, much less any hint of what the talkers have to offer or need to find.

As a way to help people have richer conversations, we recommend that at meetings and conferences, in addition to providing a speaker and having unstructured networking time, you also lead members in structured networking activities. These structured activities offer two benefits. First, they help people connect who wouldn’t normally meet. Second, they guide people into conversations where they can glimpse each others’ character and competence. In open networking, people often choose to talk with people they already know. In structured networking, people are led into randomly chosen paired conversations and small group discussions on topics that get past those ho-hum discussions. The new energy and “in group” feeling that these activities create is dramatic.

In structured networking activities, you can provoke the kinds of in-depth conversations that will help your members move quickly and intentionally through the six stages. The goal is not for everyone to become allies. That’s not necessary or realistic. Instead, by knowing the six stages and having activities that encourage rich interaction, you give the maximum number of members the chance to show each other their character and competence and feel part of the in crowd sooner.

Structured Activities

So what kinds of structured networking activities can an event organizer include? There are dozens and dozens; here are three of our favorites.

It’s in the cards. Each person attending the event draws a playing card. For the first round, people form small groups based on the numeral on their cards and are given a topic to explore. For the second conversation, people get in groups by suits and are asked to come up with a new slogan or bumper sticker for the association—or for the upcoming conference or other special event. In completing a task together, the people in the group quickly learn more about each other’s character and competence.

Great connections. This activity is a series of leader-led paired conversations. If you just do a few one on ones at every meeting, the trust and camaraderie in the group grows quickly. Good conversations are a search for commonalities or needs, so in each one on one the leader gives you and your partner a topic or questions to talk about for five or six minutes. Here are three examples:

  • ·
  • What’s the biggest transformation or change you’ve experienced at work or in your career? Think back and tell your partner about a change you’ve been through and how it’s affecting your future. ·
  • If you could step into someone else’s shoes for a day, whose would you choose? Your boss’s? Oprah’s? Bill Gates’? The president of this association? Why do you choose this person, and what’s one skill or perspective you’d bring that you think would be a plus? ·
  • Whether you’re 26 or 62, you might like to be honored and remembered. Tell your partner what you’d like to have named after you. That’s right, if something in the world could be named after you, what would you like it to be? A stadium? A planet? A new Broadway theater? (Give an example using the name of someone in the audience: “The Mary Blakely Theatrical Arts Center or The Jim Walters Children’s Hospital.”)
Meet the pros. In small group meetings of six or eight, members have structured discussions led by members who are pros in their fields and have special expertise to share. This activity is a good way to honor and involve members who hold “expert” or “celebrity” status and might not usually attend meetings.

Each “meet the pros” session takes about 30 minutes, so if you run two rounds, your program will take about an hour. Advertising these special table discussions ahead of time often draws people who don’t normally attend, because they are tired of having the same old conversations. It’s a good way for newcomers to spend 30 minutes with someone from the inner circle and begin to build a relationship.

For event organizers, meetings are about members meeting members. You can deliver the most fantastic hors d’oeuvres and wine ever tasted—so remarkable, in fact, that people talk about them afterward. But in a few months, it won’t matter. What will matter is if your attendees made a contact that counts. The attendees at an association meeting should already be at the third stage of a relationship—the associates. As you know from experience, however, sometimes they need a little boost.

Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon are founders of Contacts Count, a training and consulting firm. They are authors of the downloadable, scripted Great Connections Guide: 10 Networking Activities for Association Events and of the new book, Make Your Contacts Count. Contact them through their

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