Think I'm not paying attention? Think again.

November 08, 2011

Has your employer ever sent you to a conference and you were:

  1. Not really sure what you were there to learn or do.
  2. Sick at the thought of awkwardly talking to strangers during “networking time.”
  3. Guilt-ridden about the recap you were supposed to write of the event—but didn’t.
  4. All of the above, and more.

Yes, we’ve all been there. Conferences can be incredibly stimulating, but they can also be tough on the brain, the ego and, if the chairs are hard, the backside.

I had an experience last week that will revolutionize the way I participate in conferences.

It seems counter-intuitive that a tool for connecting virtually can exponentially enhance the experience of connecting in person, but social media can. And it did.

At the Fast Company Innovation Uncensored Conference in San Francisco, I experienced the power of social media firsthand. Let me tell you what I saw.

By my estimation, over half of the audience was using Twitter during the conference to comment on the speaker’s presentation in real time. The conference organizers (who set up the hashtag #UI11) and the speakers and moderators waiting in the wings were Tweeting too. This did two big things for those of us in attendance.

One, it allowed all of us to participate in a singular, robust “side conversation” if we so chose. The sessions became interactive and we all benefitted from the insights and opinions of the thought-leaders in the audience as well as those on stage. Those who weren’t participating in social media were simply on the receiving end of what was presented.

Was it distracting? Not for me. In fact, I’d say it made me pay better attention as I was seeking out key insights to Tweet.

It seems counter-intuitive that a tool for connecting virtually can exponentially enhance the experience of connecting in person, but social media can.

Two, social media actually facilitated face-to-face networking. After following the conversation all day, it was much easier to approach people during the networking time and pick up where the conversation left off, so to speak. Also, because most everyone has a headshot associated with his or her twitter handle, I could recognize by sight, and comfortably approach, people I’d never actually met. Social awkwardness practically eliminated.

Of secondary importance, social media allowed attendees to give feedback to the conference organizers in real time. “Can you move the podium? Those of us on the right can’t see” was the most productive tweet. “My ass is mad”—about the hard wooden chairs—gets the humor award.

Lastly, post-conference, a review of the Twitter stream provides a great crowd-sourced recap of the event. All the key takeaways are right there!

If you think Twitter is about broadcasting to the world what kind of sandwich you made for lunch, let me share with you a few actual tweets from the event. You’ll see they are thoughtful and each is crafted as a conversation starter, which is what social media is all about.

There were three hundred attendees at this conference. If each of us Tweeting has, say, 125 followers, that means that content from this conference reached 18,750 people who weren’t physically there. Not only were the ideas for the event disseminated, Tweets invite engagement, which means the conversation became even that much longer and richer.

This is significant. And I bet not a one of those 18,750 people got the sore bum I did.