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Mar 18, 2003: Got Social Networking Exercises?

I'm looking for suggestions on nifty ways to get strangers to network at my upcoming seminars. I'd love to make it really easy for attendees to meet people who share something in common--or, for that matter, who are completely different. I've been having difficulties finding good ideas, and would love some input. If I pick your method, there's even a secret surprise gift in it for you

As an example, it'd be nice for attendees to see that they share the same color name badge, or provide them with some other reasonable excuse to initiate a conversation. Perhaps a pre-seminar survey would reveal interests, background, job titles, or other ways to match people, and these attributes could be communicated by badge colors or something similar.

Or is this sort of thing just a waste of time?

Coincidentally, I was reading Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick for the umpteenth time recently. The protagonist runs for President with the slogan "Lonesome no more!". Upon his election, every American is randomly assigned a brand new government-issue middle name, based on a plant, an animal, and other object, combined with a numeric code. President Wilbur Daffodil-11 Swain's plan takes off, and these new "families" persist after the inevitable collapse of western civilization. As you might guess, I recommend Slapstick: a quick and funny-as-hell read, and a little bit of social network thinking along the way.

And hey, maybe that's my answer? Maybe I should market my seminar with the slogan "Social network-challenged no more!"

Hi ho.

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Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Mar 18, 2003)

Free associating here:

I've been to a number of events where each person is given one element of a set and one's task is to find the people with the complementary pieces. The most common variation on this idea is used at boy-girl social mixers where the sets are famous couples, the guy getting half a heart with, say, "Romeo" written on it and the gal getting the other half of the heart with "Juliette". But the concept can be extended to sets of N and have the romantic connotations removed. (Elements of a taxonomy, maybe?) In another variation, the tags are taped to participants' backs and they have to negotiate for clues to their identities.

Unix conferences used to use SIG-dots, different colors and shapes of stickies one could apply to one's badge to indicate technical and extracurricular interests (e.g., security, perl, anime, Esperanto). Attendees were free to make up new SIG-dots as the conference progressed. The "code" was posted on a board by the check-in tables. Especially geeky attendees would need extra badge space for their many dots, like the medals worn by a Soviet general.

One conference I went to had piles of Legos in the middle of each table at dinner and we were supposed to collaborate on building things. We dutifully passed little Lego sculptures around the table but I can't say it led to much interaction.

Finally, an exercise guaranteed to make them hate you and each other: group them by dress and physical resemblance, a la the art project Exactitudes. :-)

Comment: Tim Slavin (Mar 18, 2003)

Oddly enough, this sort of thing interests me and I've noted a few techniques over the years. They're awkward certainly which is what fascinates me, a kind of forced pleasantness.

Recently I was at a small seminar and we were asked to talk to the person seated next to us and to be prepared after five minutes to reveal one secret thing personal about that individual as well as describe who they were, what they cared about, their life story. After the time was up, we went around the room. It worked better than asking people to volunteer information. It also pulled out information that others in the room used at break times to start conversations. It was also less invasive than badges.

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Mar 18, 2003)

Oops, I didn't read the fine print. The URL for Exactitudes is http://www.exactitudes.com/

Comment: Mike Jaixen (Mar 18, 2003)

If you were providing lunch at the seminar, you might consider assigning lunch seats based on some sort of pre-defined criteria. Usually at these events, you are attending by yourself anyway, so finding a seat for lunch is kind of awkward anyway, so why not try and organize this part as well.

Comment: Paul Nattress (Mar 18, 2003)

I'd like to see name badges with job title plus areas of interest (accessibility, usability evaluations, taxonomies etc.) so that people can chat to others who share the same interests. Also, an unusual interest could spark off some conversations.

Comment: Livia Labate (Mar 18, 2003)

I have seen Tim's suggestion (telling a secret) at work and it is good. I do prefer though, to go one step further: each person is to introduce themselves or speak up about a subject you pick and include a lie in what they are saying.

The rest of the group needs to figure out what the lie is. People are surprisingly happy and comfortable around each other after they were exposed to their secrets & lies and seem to be much eager to start conversations afterwards.

It is one of the most effective interaction techniques for the awkward setting of seminars and lectures that I have seen. The good thing is, you can ask people to focus their lies and comments to the subject you are addressing, which encourages further discussions afterwards; my lie about an IA skill may be someone else's truth and work practice. Talk about getting people excited.

Comment: Lou (Mar 18, 2003)

Wow, these are GREAT!

I should mention that I won't really have time *during* the day to get information from attendees. My idea is to do that in advance, so I spend more time teaching and so attendees can arrive to receive badges that are already marked (by color, stickies, whatever).

Anyway, keep'em coming!

(Mike, I should mention that lunch is not provided; I'm hoping that small groups who meet through this exercise could go get lunch together. We'll be providing a restaurant list, and each session is near a lot of restaurants. I'm following Steve Krug's advice: everyone already knows what rubber chickens taste like.)

Comment: Scott Berkun (Mar 18, 2003)

I've got a bunch of ideas for this. The last couple of years I've done almost nothing but teach, and that required experimenting with lots of different exercises and mixers to get folks to network. Lots of failures, but I think I did learn a few things.

Most mixing based things require too much ourage on the part of people - for many people, especially tech sector folks, it's unbearably risky to walk up to someone they don't know and start a conversation. So while inventive, your "dot intentifier" thing is still hinged on folks making that leap. I've found that most exercises that try to force networking feel
forced to everyone that participates, and can sometimes have the opposite effect. I've also learned it's nearly impossible to network en masse. You have to break people into smaller groups, give them something to do together, and make networking the natural by-product of their interaction.

By far the most successful things I've tried involve something task based, or competitive, where you break people into groups/teams, and have them do something. I don't know how to improve networking or interaction without
consuming some time during the course. However, I've learned that these exercises, if done right, get the energy level back up, and make the rest of the day more productive - so it's not a waste if it's done right.

Idea #1: Break folks into teams of 4 or 5 people. Ask each group to come up with as a large a possible list of hobbies or interests they have, or the largest number of book names on UI Design or some other topic. Depending on
the audience you might be able to choose something more fun (Beatles song names). I guarantee you each of these teams will get to know each other better - odds go up if you pick something sort of personal, and sort of fun,
since when they suggest something to be added to the easel, they'll probably feel compelled to explain it.

Idea #2: Give everyone a piece of paper, and ask them to write an answer to a question you give them. Could be as simple as why they came to the class today, or their favorite movie, whatever. Then have them all crumple up their paper, and throw it into the center of the room. Then ask each of them to grab a piece of paper (not their own) and return to their seats. Go around the room and ask each person to read the answer on their paper. (A twist: If you fear people are sitting next to their friends, have whomever
wrote the answer switch seats with whoever read it outloud). This might not qualify as networking, but it does get everyone more comfortably socially.If you pick a good question (or maybe two), you set people up to follow up
with each other during breaks.

Idea #3: This one could be part of the day. If you have folks actually design something during the day, you could break them up however you want. If you have your survey information, you could hand pick who gets to go in which group, based on where they work, what role they play, etc.

I also recommend picking up a book called games trainers play. It's filled with tons of exercises, including a section on icebreakers. Some are very cheezy, but skimming the inventory is bound to give you some other ideas.

If you want more ideas, or have more questions, let me know. One cool thing for me in the last few years was being paid by MSFT to learn how to really teach people. I think I'm a much better lecturer/teacher/facilitator than I was a few years ago. I expect I'll write an essay about teaching on http://www.uiweb.com as the next issue.


Comment: Lyle, Lyle - Croc O' Lyle (Mar 19, 2003)


I recently came across a goldmine of icebreakers and exercises for trainers or facilitators. Check it out for lots of good ideas:

Ice Breakers, Energizers, And Other Experiential Exercises From the Electronic Discussion on Group Facilitation

Depending on size of the group and time available, the Group Juggle and TP exercises look like fun. The Alias Mingler, Forced Choice and Posters exercises all look good for larger groups.

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Mar 19, 2003)

(Another of my off-topic intrusions into Lou's space --

The "two truths and a lie" game has a wonderful online instance in Heather Champ's blog: http://www.harrumph.com/mt/mt-comments.cgi?entry_id=11

And the game figures prominently in Arthur Phillips' fine novel "Prague": http://aprendizdetodo.com/books/?item=20020910

Now back to IA.)

Comment: Rob (Mar 20, 2003)

my suggestion to get people to network is for the participants to create a Meetup on Information Architecture. If you go to the Web site http://www.meetup.com a user can organize a meetup on a topic. In this case it would IA. It's free and it's a great way for people with similar interests to meet.


Comment: Steve Hunt (Mar 21, 2003)

Hi Lou,

During my time at the BBC I attended a presentation by a man who's name I forget (apologies to the un-named), from a company called GameLab. It was, to be fair, a pretty standard, run-of-the-mill chat about gaming and it's many social aspects, but one 'game' that they had produced really stood out.


Bite Me, listed about half way down, always seemed to me an excellent method of garnering audience participation. Simple rules, no need to spend time explaining (or setting up), just very, very usable (and most of all FUN!)

I'm sure it can be tweaked to fit the IA demographic and/or the subject of your seminars.

Keep 'doing the do!'


Comment: Ringae (Mar 23, 2003)

This was an idea I had for a party. It might not be quite right in this context, but I thought it was worth noting.

The host has a collection of pairs of stick-on tattoos. He gives each person a tattoo. So, for every tattoo, someone else out there has your twin. There's a prize of some sort for the first couple to find one another.

It's a good conversation-starter. The hardest part of talking with someone is initiating a conversation, the rest usually takes care of itself.

Comment: Hadley (Mar 23, 2003)

Most of the icebreakers I've been involved in where for moderately size groups (30-40) of fairly young people in a pretty informal setting, so I'm not sure how well they'd adapt to your situtaion, but here goes:

Divide everyone into groups, and set a challenge. Have some kind of reward for the group that does best. Maybe some kind of design contest?

I think tasks where everyone ends up a bit embarassed can be great - since you've already embarassed yourself, you won't mind potentially embarassing yourself again talking to a new person. Non-verbal matching games are good at this - eg. everyone is given an animal name and has to find the other members of their group without talking, line up according to birth date without talking...

As others have mentioned, it does seem to be easy to introduce someone else rather than yourself, and then you'll at least know one person ! :)

I'm not sure I like the idea of attendants being pre-matched. It seems a bit like some kind of computerised dating program :(

Comment: Josh (Mar 24, 2003)

For some reason I translated Social Networking to "Social Engineering".

I have to admit I was a little more interested when I thought Lou was going to try to steal all the attendees' passwords.

Comment: christina (Mar 26, 2003)

The best game I ever saw was one where you write the name of a famous person on a bit of maskign tape, stick it on people's back, then you have to ask people questions to find out who you are. it creates a lot of small talk, which helps folks bond.

Comment: Edward Vielmetti (Mar 27, 2003)

Lou --

Wayne Baker does a "Reciprocity Ring" game at the tables he does when the throws workshops, where everyone writes down one question they'd like answered, and then each person in turn asks the question & the group answers it. You need to have people broken up into tables of 7-10 to make it work. The idea is that everyone is simultaneously giving and receiving help, so there's a bunch of whuffie points that get built up.



Comment: Lou (Mar 28, 2003)

Just overwhelmed with the ideas here. I wish more were do-able without taking time during the seminar, but either way, there's so much here that someone ought to write an article on these kinds of exercises.

Hey Christina, how about Boxes & Arrows culling a piece from this entry?

Comment: Livia Labate (Mar 28, 2003)

Just over curiosity, today I interviewed best seller author Ross Dawson ('Developing Knowledge-Based Client Relationships' and the new 'Living Networks') and he mentioned something interesting I had never heard off that immediately reminded me of this blog entry.

He described an 'intelligent name tag' for conferences and talks where the user information such as topics of interest, experience and other details [and their name of course ;) ], were stored in the smart tag (a small microchip I suppose) and when participants walked around, the smart name tag would check information from those passing by and beep when common subjects of interest were a match.

Very high tech and probably more complicated than you had planned for your talk, but I thought I would mention it here because it sounded quite innovative.

"*beep* I should be talking to that person!" very neat.

Comment: George Frothingham (Sep 16, 2003)

Check out the URL above

Comment: Lou (Sep 16, 2003)

Excellent; thanks George.

Comment: Larry (Mar 17, 2004)


I stumbled here through searching the web for social networking games. I find speed networking quite useful;where each attendee speaks to each other for three minutes. And also if you get evry one to learn at least three things about as many attendees as possible. Then you get everyone to introduce someone in the group apart from themselves.

Comment: Prentiss Riddle (Mar 15, 2005)

A late addition to this discussion:

My friend David Nunez came up with an ingenious idea which caught on in a big way at this year's South by Southwest Interactive: he started handing out orange smiley stickers for people to put on their badges to say, "I'm not too cool to talk to." That's an important message to get across at a conference where the cultivated atmosphere of tech+hip can be somewhat intimidating.

The meme spread fast but we won't know until next year whether it is repeatable, SXSWers being such novelty hounds.

For more see David's blog: http://www.davidnunez.com/sxsw

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