Tips for improving networking at your events
14 Jun 2017 - by Monique Swart
We’ve all been to those events where networking feels a bit non-existent - and it’s a disappointment because, for many of us, being able to network is one of the key reasons to attend an industry event.
I find this happens for three main reasons:
Many people are just really shy. Networking is not their thing and they feel very much out of their comfort zones, so they would rather stay seated and work on their laptops, or avoid engaging by floating around on the outskirts of the group. It’s important to remember that not everyone knows how to network and- just as with most things in life, if we don’t know how, we feel self-conscious and try to avoid jumping in. For sales people or ‘customer facing’ business executives, networking is part of the job description. But for others – often the ‘potential clients’ in the room – networking is often not a job requirement, although it’s a skill I think anyone should work towards.
I recently attended an event where one of the delegates told me she followed someone into the loo, so desperate was she to get some alone time with the lady she was keen to convert into a customer. Hmmmmm…. clearly there were some boundary issues there! But this sadly happens more often than we realise. If there is a ‘potential client base’ in the room, these poor delegates end up feeling a bit like the only boy at an all-girls high school dance. The attention can become a bit overwhelming.
We sometimes find that when a few, or even two, people from the same company attend an event, they tend to stick together and feel more comfortable in each other’s company than ‘mingling’. It is often difficult to approach a group like this as it feels like you are closed out of the conversation.
At ABTA events, we have a few different ways of encouraging networking.
First, all of our events are round table based. This naturally encourages conversation as sitting around a table facing each other is far more interactive than sitting in rows were you can only interact with the people on either side of you.
Second, it helps to get everyone into an ‘equal’ playing field. We will sometimes ‘split’ people from the same company by having pre-seating. We also have an industry sector card at each seat, so each table has a good mix of delegates from different companies and different sectors.
Lastly, during the tea breaks, we like to host a speed networking session where all delegates form part of a big moving cycle of networking. Again, for anyone feeling uncomfortable with networking, this format makes it easier for them as they are thrown into the same boat as everyone else and as there is a structure, which makes talking to complete strangers far easier. There is also a time limit, which allows you to meet just about everyone in the room, but limited to one minute engagement, which keeps things ‘light’. There is usually a bit of resistance or awkwardness, which lasts maybe a minute and then everyone just gets on with it. We also occasionally play a brief ice-breaker game at the beginning of the day, and by the end of the day once we start our round table discussion, which is how we end every event, everyone is very comfortable and happy to engage.
There are several different formats and ideas for encouraging networking but ensuring an equal playing field at the outset usually helps to ensure a good level of interaction. It’s also great to see that some of our delegates who started off quite shy at their first event are the first to jump in during the networking with the more events they attend. As their confidence grows, they become far more relaxed and engaged.
Remember that even if you are not really interested in networking or necessarily looking to meet anyone specific, you never know how different people can have a positive impact on your career!
Founder of African Business Travel Association (ABTA).