When it comes to networking, it's easy to assume that bigger is better: The more people will be there, the higher the chance you'll make good connections. I've actually found the reverse to be true. In fact, I'd rather be in a smaller, intimate setting with deeper conversations rather than a sprawling, crowded event with speed dating-style hobnobbing.
John Boitnott recently mirrored my opinion when he talked about skipping this week's 150,000-person strong Consumer Electronics Show (as I did):
I'm noticing a trend towards something different this year. Many startups and tech executives are skipping the festivities to attend more intimate gatherings where they can network and collaborate with more closely relevant colleagues who matter for their business' growth.
People who have been to many of the big events aren't looking to have that same experience over and over. They want a personal combination of location, relevant discussion and deal-making potential.
The last sentence nails it. Let's break down.
Location: It's two fold. First, the locale could be remote enough so that it forces more intimate networking. CES in Las Vegas, for instance, has the opposite effect, as it isn't conducive to having focused conversations. Second, the locale affects the ability to actually hear other people, just as a low-key lounge may have deeper connections than a noisy club. The bigger the gathering, the harder it is to connect.
Relevant discussion: Relevant discussion shouldn't mean what your business needs right now, but what your business will need to go to the next level. One of the reasons why I go to the relatively small TED conference is that the conversations take my vision well beyond the current scope. Broader events need to appeal to as many attendees as possible, so the agenda won't be as fine-tuned.
Deal-making potential: It comes down to the ability to meet people outside of your social, economic or cultural circle. I love bumping into people I know at different events, but I love connecting with a potential new business colleague even more. Bigger events often are less curated affairs, so more people doesn't mean you'll meet the most compatible people.
Do you feel more connected at bigger conferences or at smaller events? I'd love to hear your take.