Breaking Cliques at Events

I’ve been going to professional events for a number of years, and one of the trickiest dynamics I have seen is that most events develop an “insiders” group who has been going for a long time. These groups tend to feel like exclusionary cliques for first-time attendees, and actively hurt the community’s goal of inclusion.

I’d like to propose a simple rule that we have at the events I run, which I think makes inclusion easier for everyone.

Difficulty meeting new people

Meeting new people is scary, especially if you’re new to a community and you’re not sure if you belong. People that have been attending an event for years are much more firmly planted in the community. They are able to help newcomers understand the norms and standards of a place.

This means that long-time attendees should be the ones introducing themselves to first-time attendees.

With that in mind, I drafted a new concept that I think assigns the concept properly.

The Community++ Rule [1]

The rule is:

For every year you have attended the event, you should try to meet that many new people each day.

An example makes it clear:

If you have attended this event for three years, you should try to meet three new people each day.

See also

My original post on the The Pac-Man Rule for another useful event rule

The organizer’s responsibility

As an organizer, you’re asking a lot of the long-time attendees. Particularly in the software industry, a lot of people (including me!) have anxiety around meeting new people.

By setting the above rule, it’s the organizer’s responsibility to make meeting new people easier.

So here are a few ideas for how to make meeting new folks easier: [2]

  • Organize lunches and dinners around topics so that people know they have shared interests
  • Give folks “Ask me about ____” stickers to wear, so that breaking the ice is easy!
  • Have an Unconference or open space, where there are tables or rooms labeled by topic in 30 minute blocks
  • Have a Welcome Wagon, which is a few folks who are designated friendly faces for the event

Outcomes

  • New people only have to meet one new person each day, a useful and attainable goal
  • People coming back for the second or third year feel a bit more responsibility to be stewards for the community, a valuable role for them to play
  • The organizers and long-time attendees need to meet the most people, and they are the most valuable in spreading the culture of the event – they are also the most exciting for new people to meet!

In the events that I have run, this rule has turned out quite well. I have gotten feedback from people, who turned it into a game: “My friends and I competed to see how many new people we could meet each day”

However, the most important outcome is how it changes the dynamic of the event itself. It goes from an event where it feels like people aren’t accessible, to one where people know it’s their job to meet new people. This makes it easier for everyone to meet new people, make connections, and really build the valuable professional networks that we all need to be happy in our careers.

Giving everyone at the event the direction to meet new people makes it much easier to meet new people.


Footnotes

[1]The name is temporary, happy for suggestions! Inspired by: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Increment_and_decrement_operators
[2]Thanks to Jacob Kaplan-Moss for feedback, particularly around ideas on making things easier.


Hey there. I'm Eric and I do consulting and provide other services around software documentation. Feel free to email me if you want to chat.