Crowds in excess of three million swarmed Brazil’s Copacabana Beach last Sunday for a glimpse of Pope Francis.

But many experienced more than a fleeting peek of the pontiff.

There was a bonafide connection between the spiritual leader and the spectators that transformed a jam- packed event into a powerful experience.

Although I didn’t make it to Rio, I recently attended a major national convention where—amidst the expansive venue and more than 4,300 attendees—I too felt a connection!  While many factors clicked to create the zeal factor, three lead the charge, converting the grand-scale General Assembly of YMCAs into an exhilarating personal experience.

Practice these tactics and, like the Pope, you too can break through any crowd and connect:

No 1: Have a meaningful and common purpose.

The Y pared to three words its goal for bringing people together at the General Assembly: “Connect. Educate. Inspire.” By keeping the theme crisp and clear, it is easier to advance—not only in signage and brochures but in the actual proceedings of the conference – something far more impressionable. The theme was best pronounced in the words and actions of the convention staff who went the extra distance to facilitate introductions, conversations and information exchanges between attendees to enhance each individual experience—and development.

With the help of event volunteers, I was personally introduced to many Y leaders from various organizations, who offered insights, contact information and lessons learned about strategic planning—a hot topic at the Pittsfield (MA) Family YMCA, where I serve on the board of directors.  Each volunteer host walked with me to make introductions and break the ice. Sure, it would have been easier and faster for them to write down a name or point out a face. But each of them gave time and personalized attention that enhanced the conference theme and my experience.

No. 2: Be and stay upbeat.

As I learned from Lisa, a Y leader who doubled as an event host, the positive spiritedness of the General Assembly permeated orientation and training sessions conducted months before the actual event. Through a steady stream of communication—using various media from virtual, web huddles to in-person, staff meeting updates—an enthusiastic, energetic tone was set and subsequently reinforced.

Lisa gave a lot of credit to the conference lead coordinator for being “refreshed and upbeat” before, during and after the event. Her body language and voice never fatigued. True as well for Pope Francis, whose beaming smile and outstretched hands were a constant across changing venues of a non-descript, rain-swept slum to that famous, sun-baked beach.

No. 3: Show sincere appreciation.

Starting with my badge pick-up, “thank you” became the mantra of Y conference hosts. This simple, yet terribly underused phrase, transcended routine “thanks” largely by the way they were expressed: Direct eye contact, handshakes, and occasional hugs accompanied the mantra, underscoring it even more. I learned that appreciative tone was set well before the convention’s start with volunteers—which helped to cement it for attendees.  

As Lisa explained, advance messages from Y executives to the host volunteers were always threaded with words of appreciation for their time and commitment. “Everybody—whether it was the Y CEO, event manager or other leaders—were constantly saying ‘thank you!’” They demonstrated that appreciation in their actions as well. Lisa said that she received a personal phone call from the event manager shortly after emailing her a few questions. “She took the time to call me, answer my questions and let me know I was important. The leadership that she provided for this event was simply amazing.”  

In much the same way, Pope Francis demonstrated his gratitude in his verbal and facial expressions of congeniality and affection. He broke new ground on Monday by recognizing the press corps that trailed him with unfiltered presence. Francis stood in the aisle of his return charter flight and candidly answered off-the-cuff questions.  As it turned out, the experience was as profound for journalists as his interaction was for the faithful.

The welcome message printed in the Y General Assembly’s conference guide laid out a tall order in these days of multi-tasking and short attention spans: “May your experiences these next four days send you home with a renewed sense of enthusiasm and dedication that continues to inspire your work…”  That connection clicked for me—in half the time (I participated for two days).  And it is the gift that keeps giving through conversations about my experience with Y colleagues back in Pittsfield, MA—and now, more broadly, in this column.

That well demonstrates the power and reach of connections. After all, crowds are made up of individuals. It’s not just what you say that moves a person to action.  The essence of making a personal connection is in the preparation, the execution, the sincerity and the follow-up (walking the talk). 

Linda Dulye is internationally recognized for helping many companies go spectator free. A former communications leader for GE and Allied Signal, Linda established Dulye & Co. in 1998 with a practical, process-driven approach for improving communications. and collaboration through an engaged workforce— a formidable competitive advantage, that she calls a Spectator-Free Workplace™.