By Powerbitches founder, Rachel Hills
A few weeks ago, I overheard a conversation in my coworking space between a marketing consultant and her client.
“People want to feel like they’re part of a community,” she said. And the most successful brands on social media were the ones that presented like a hive of interaction and activity. Ergo, her client should focus on ways they could make their brand feel more like a community, with events for their customers and lots and lots of pictures of happy, connected looking people on Instagram.
I found the conversation equal parts fascinating and dispiriting. Dispiriting because, as someone who has spent years obsessing about how communities work - and how they can work better - it bothered me to hear something I care so much about discussed so transactionally.
And fascinating because, well, she was right. In an era where many of the institutions that were designed to meet our need for human connection (church, neighbors, extended family) no longer play the role they once did - and maybe never properly met it for many of us - most of us are hungry to connect with likeminded people, form real relationships, and be part of something bigger than ourselves.
The problem is that while we’re really good at identifying that need for connection, we’re much less effective at creating environments that fulfil it.
Who among us hasn’t stood at awkwardly at a busy networking event, drink in hand, working up the energy to strike up a conversation with yet another stranger (or trying to figure out how to gracefully exit the one you’re in)? Or gone to a panel or conference presumably full of like-minded people - all there also in search of the same connection and community - and not spoken to any of them?
These problems are often framed in terms of introvert vs extrovert, but I’m an extrovert and I hate them too. I think they’re structural, inherent in the way gatherings are conceived, hosted, and facilitated.
But the good thing about them being structural is that they can be changed.
In that spirit, as someone who has thought a lot about how to create conditions that enable people to connect and form meaningful relationships, here are four things I believe all event organizers should be doing to enhance their communities.
1. Know who’s in the room. Like, really know them. Not just as an abstract marketing category, but as people. What are their names? What do they care about? What are they struggling with? Why are they here? And where appropriate, share this information with them, too. If I’m going to a meetup, a conference, or a cocktail hour and I know who else is there, that allows me to make a beeline for the people I have the best chance of connecting with, instead of just striking up a conversation at random and hoping for the best. It also allows me to ask better questions and more quickly find points of commonality, whoever I’m talking to at the event. Sending everyone who is attending a gathering each another’s photographs and bios before they meet is a trick I picked up at a Mindr networking event for women working in social impact, and it’s one I employ at all of our Powerbitches Salons.
2. Hosting is an active endeavor. As an event organizer, your job isn’t just to get people in the room. It’s to create conditions that help them to connect once they get there. If you’re hosting a dinner, this might mean thoughtfully assigning seats, rather than leaving them to seat themselves. If you’re hosting a mixer, it means checking in on people who are standing alone and introducing them to other guests with common interests. In a coworking scenario, it means talking to prospective members about who they are and what they care about when onboarding, rather than just talking them through the facilities in your space. (Shoutout here to Impact Hub Islington, where I worked as a member host when I lived in London, and which did hosting in a manner that is second to none.)
3. Think participation, not passive consumption. Panels, speakers, and screenings are a great way to get exposed to interesting people and perspectives, but as a general rule, they are terrible at building community. If you want your audience to form a connection with one another, you need to give them opportunities to participate and connect with each other beyond the Q&A at the end of the event. Last year, I took part in a Not Safe For Mom Group event that did this really well. Instead of focusing the conversation on those of us on stage, the facilitator invited participants to share their stories, experiences, and questions throughout the evening, creating a conversation that felt much more connected, cohesive, and profound than your average panel event.
4. Repeat encounters matter. Even the most beautiful, intentionally crafted gathering will struggle to create a lasting or meaningful connection if there isn’t an opportunity for the people in the room to meet again. Real relationships build over time, whether that’s in the structured environment of a monthly event series or annual conference, or the casual run-ins that happen on a college campus or coworking space. This is one of the main reasons we decided to pursue a membership model for Powerbitches - we wanted our members to meet each other over and over again, and to build the trust and community that comes with that.
What are your secrets for building authentic community and connection?