When attendees have a great networking experience, they may feel joyful, excited, accomplished, and perhaps more open to possibilities. But all too often, networking events leave participants, especially those who are alone, feeling rejected, awkward, exhausted, stressed, embarrassed, lonely, and vulnerable. During the recent Virtual Networking Incubator, a 12-week event co-founded by Matchbox Virtual Media and me; we spent some time exploring the emotions that come forward while networking. 58% of the over 150 Incubator participants reported feeling anxiety/concern at traditional networking events.
William, a new member, decides to attend his first chapter event. The speaker is quite good, so he decides to stay for the one-hour networking event following the presentation. As the speaker wraps up, people quickly rush to their friends, and soon everyone is talking to someone, it seems, except for William. He spends a few minutes scanning the room, trying to figure out if he can insert himself into a conversation. None of the tight huddles look inviting, so he heads toward the snack table. Another attendee comes to the table while William deliberates between popcorn (hulls in teeth) or a granola bar (bad breath). William says hello and tries to start some small talk. They exchange a few pleasantries awkwardly until the attendee excuses himself to talk to a friend. William slowly walks a loop around the perimeter of the room. Seeing no opportunities for conversation, he heads for his car, feeling a little deflated because these were not his people after all.
Networking events tend to be super awkward because outsiders often have no easy way to become insiders. The more hurdles attendees experience, the more they feel like an outsider. The amygdala awakens, and our primitive survival response starts sounding the alarm bells. No matter the value attendees receive, the feeling of otherness is enough to stop engagement in its tracks.
Networking events are more than an opportunity to connect; these events create experiences that drive or degrade engagement. One of the significant learnings from the Virtual Networking Incubator was that we don’t have to leave these experiences to chance. In the host role, we can create gatherings that make friends out of strangers.
Develop a topic or theme for the event
Each Incubator session had an overarching theme, and we created a long list of questions, some easy and some very deep, for participants to play with. Facilitating a guided discussion helps everyone participate, including new, quiet, or young attendees. Developing a theme has other benefits because the topic will attract like-minds facilitating interactions between people who would benefit from meeting each other.
Prime participants for exploration
Most presentation formats require attendees to be passive in audience mode, which differs from an active participant mode. Little nudges coupled with social proof can help attendees rapidly transition to participation mode.
Prime for participation by asking a question that requires a one-word answer (or in-person, a nod, or a show of hands). Make sure the question has no wrong answer (and tell attendees there is no wrong answer) to make answering safe. As responses collect in the chat or attendees see their peers raise their hands, they will see that participating is all right.
Think about how participants should feel
When the networking event concludes, do you hope participants feel curious, exhilarated, connected, or [insert your own emotion here]? As you design your event, keep that emotion in mind and include that positive takeaway in your event’s goal, messaging tone, and moderator materials.
With a few nudges here and there, we can help strangers become friends! In-person and virtual networking events don’t need to be awkward. Instead, networking events can promote adventure, belonging, and happiness.
Get tips for hosting your next in-person or virtual networking event from the Virtual Networking Incubator Final Roundup Report [click the orange button].
This article was first seen in Associations North Focus North Magazine.