Maybe a decade or two ago, a research paper concluded that public speaking was perceived as one the scariest endeavors. Do you remember that finding? Some public speakers master the fear of speaking, but you might be interested to know that not all their professional fears evaporate. In fact, networking remains at the top of the anxiety-ridden scary list.
Networking is somewhat terrifying for many of us. Maybe because “networking” is somewhat synonymous with “reception.” Imagine or remember attending an event all by yourself. During the day, you chatted with a few people in passing but made no real friends. That night you step into a huge conference room, and as your eyes quickly flick around the room, all you see are groups of people talking and laughing. What do you do? It’s awkward to stand there by yourself. It’s awkward to force yourself on a group. Faced with this dilemma, many professionals speedily stroll around the room, looking for a place to fit in. Not finding one, they turn on their heal and leave.
There’s something critical missing from many receptions, and that is a structure that gives everyone something to do. Relationships get a good start when two people can find common ground quickly. People seem to find common ground when they work together or understand their similar goals, or unite around a common purpose. It’s hard to find common ground in the usual free-for-all reception format, so first-time attendees and singles resort to some superficial chit chat and call it a night.
Receptions are not the only networking formats where we see this lack of structure. Speed networking events, small group happy hours, chapter meetings, and event meals can also lead to awkward, meaningless chit chat especially for people who do not know anyone.
Now in the virtual space, we see that lack of structure is ten times more problematic. First-timers nervously feel like they are spying on the conversations that long-time friends are having in Zoom meetings. Breakout groups are bad or good depending on the random luck of who is assigned. The moment participants hear the words “soon we’ll be heading to breakout rooms,” some leave the event. Why would people do that when this is their chance to connect? It is because they don’t think they will connect.
For virtual networking events to work well, they need structure, something for everyone to do, and an easy way for people to connect. Once we figure this out for virtual networking, even in-person networking will change for the better.