The internet, it seems, has set a low bar for networking events. Do a few googles and you’ll see what I mean:
- 15 Ways to Overcome Awkwardness at Networking Events
- Stop Feeling Awkward, Nervous, and Lonely at Networking Events
- 17 Tips to Survive Your Next Networking Event
All of the articles are aimed at giving attendees a pep talk so they have enough gumption to take control of their networking experience. Even if someone uses all the tips the articles offer, the best they can apparently hope for is something tolerable. Networking events are good for you, the articles say, even if the experience itself kind of sucks.
As the people planning events, this should make us uncomfortable. We can and should aim higher—because I don’t think we want to host the experiential equivalent of a rough kale salad.
Hosting is active, not passive
To make any event better, we have to focus on what attendees need. For networking events in particular, attendees need hosts to take control and influence how attendees interact with each other. To give you an idea of what I mean, let me take a quick detour—I promise it comes back to networking events:
I recently “binged” The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. I mostly liked it (8.5/10, FWIW), but something about it also made me a little uneasy.
If you haven’t see it, here’s the gist of the series (without spoilers): Midge Maisel, an uptown Manhattan housewife, launches a secret career as a stand up comic after her marriage falls apart. Midge is smart, pretty, and a standup genius. She encounters some setbacks—she’ll occasionally bomb a set, and she frequently runs up against sexism. But more often than not, she doesn’t just overcome the setbacks. She confidently turns them on their head and transcends them.
A club manager is hesitant to hand over the mic because she’s a woman? Midge makes a point of talking about it during her set. An audience member heckles her? Like any good comedian, she takes them on and beats them with her wit. She commands attention. It is about her.
She’s good, she knows it, and she takes control of her environment in a way that most of us don’t want to take control. It reminds me of... the reason people don’t like networking. The idea of taking control of a group of people makes most of us uncomfortable.
Hosting an event is about more than gathering a group of people and letting them figure it out. If you're going to host an event, host it.
That's going to be true of anyone in any group, including both the host and the attendees at a networking event. No one wants to be domineering, but everyone wants someone else to take control and give the group some direction. The event organizer needs to be that person.
That doesn’t mean a host needs to be exactly like Midge or any standup—a host doesn't need to take center stage and keep it. But hosting an event is about more than gathering a group of people and letting them figure it out. If you're going to host an event, you have to host it.
Real advice for making networking better
For networking events in particular, the general goal is for attendees to meet people with similar interests and have conversations with those people.
The host’s job is to make sure each attendee—even the quieter, younger, or less experienced ones—is set up to reach the goal of the event. Every event is different, but there are a few broad guidelines we’ve found useful:
- Introduce attendees to each other. It doesn’t really matter how you do this, as long as you do it for everyone. If your event is small, maybe you introduce guests via email before the event begins and ask them to find each other once they’re in person. At our Connection Makers series, we use EFx Texting to group attendees. Each guest receives a text message with the names of their group members and are asked to find those people. We intentionally don't give them any other guidelines—they have to talk to each other to figure out what to do and find their people.
- Supply guests with a prompt they can use to start the conversation. Again, this can be anything, as long as it starts conversation. If you're hosting a happy hour after a panel discussion, maybe you prompt attendees to talk about what they found most interesting during the panel. Or maybe they have to play 20 questions to determine what each person in the group does. Whatever! As long as it helps attendees begin a conversation with one another without having to talk about the weather.
- Remember that people appreciate guidelines. All of this might cause some self doubt. What if they don't want to break into groups? Or don't want to talk about the prompt? Honestly, maybe some of them won't want to do it at first, but there's a reason they came to the event. They signed up and and showed up because they wanted to be with a group of people; they wanted to meet new people. They will be happy to have done it, and they will appreciate the fact that you gave them the guidelines to do something that can be difficult.
"Networking" is a nebulous term and activity. You can't control everything that happens when a group of personalities convene, and you don't have to overthink it. But you can and should put up some guardrails—for the benefit of you and your attendees.