Community in the Classroom: 6 Ways to Help Learners Connect at Conferences

6 Ways to Help Learners Connect at Conferences

By Catherine Dorrough

Every time I step into a store and see the back-to-school supplies displayed front and center, I’m hit with a wave of nostalgia. I can practically smell the fresh No. 2 pencils sitting in their neat little arrays between the neon Post-Its and the fat pink erasers.

When I was growing up, every new school year offered a fresh beginning – a chance to debut a new hairstyle, to choose the definitive lunchbox, to finally commit to filling in my day planner. A chance, in other words, to figure out how I fit back into my school community after two months of pool time and popsicles.

Even as an adult, I still crave that first-day-of-school feeling. There’s a certain magic in being part of a community of students who are all embarking on the same path.

Event designers are experts at delivering relevant and timely educational content, filling people’s need to learn long after they’ve thrown their graduation caps into the air. Every day, eventgoers fill ballrooms and classrooms around the world to gain new knowledge in their field of expertise.

But the real magic happens when event organizers help participants connect not just with the material but also with each other, transforming them into a true community of learners. It doesn’t happen automatically. Creating that kind of transformative experience is one part science and one part art, with a dash of luck thrown into the mix. Here are some of my favorite ways to create an atmosphere that facilitates deeper connection:

1. Choose the optimal room setup. If space allows, seat people in small groups instead of lining them up in theater-style rows. It’s easy to ignore your neighbors when you’re all sitting in a single mass, facing forward. Conversely, it’s easy to connect when you’re seated at tables or – even better – grouped into comfortable living room-style soft seating.

2. Get people talking. Some people feel instantly at ease in a group of strangers; many do not. Ease people into introductions by giving them ample opportunities to break the ice. There are myriad ways to achieve this without detracting from the event’s educational objectives. For example, you could hire a live scribe to illustrate education sessions in real time, creating a natural conversation starter for people to gather around during breaks. Or you could incorporate small group activities or mini brainstorming sessions into the sessions to help participants collaboratively put concepts into practice.

3. Stock the classroom: That nostalgic excitement of school supplies? You can harness it during an education session to rev up participants’ brains and help them get comfortable in their surroundings. Forget the formal logo’d pad and pen at everyone’s seat. Instead, put some fun supplies in the center of the table. Colored pens and pencils, different types of pads, sticky notes in different shapes and sizes – let people choose what they want to use and get creative with their note-taking.

4. Leverage Q&A: Have you ever been in a conference session and known instantly whether you would click with someone based on the way they ask a question? Both the style and delivery of a question can reveal details about a person’s worldview and personality – natural entrees into follow-up conversation. Facilitate this discovery by giving people opportunities to step up to the mic. And don’t forget that presenters can also be the ones asking the questions. Posing questions to an audience can help break down the wall of silence that often pervades a room full of strangers.

5. Host a meet and greet: If time allows, ask popular presenters to stick around after their sessions to chat with guests. The folks who really connected with the material will instantly be able to spot one other, and they’ll have an opportunity to get to know each other better while waiting for their turn to meet the speaker.

6. Class dismissed: Sometimes, less is more. When you incorporate unstructured time into an event, people can choose whom they want to talk with and what they want to talk about. It can be tempting to hyper-organize every moment of the event to give people maximum value for their time and money, but it’s incredibly unsatisfying to leave an event without having had an opportunity to actually meet people. Whether you add a luncheon, a cocktail hour, or even a simple networking break into the event, place a few conversation-starting activations into the space and then take a step back.

Don’t worry; there won’t be a pop quiz on this later. But one last thing before you depart – our team is hard at work planning a one-day conference in Washington, DC, the 2024 Fuse Spring Intensive, which will put these concepts (and more) into practice. Come learn creative ways to infuse community thinking into event design, while building your own community along the way. Registration opens in September. Sign up for event alerts here.

Hope to see you in class!