Thursday, November 29, 2007

8 Reasons Why Many Networking Events Suck
and how organizers can improve them...

I enter a roomful of people I've never seen before. I write "MIKE" in large block letters on a nametag sticker and attach it to my shirt. I feel marked, but nobody shoots. Nobody even looks. I wander through the throng, trying to find the bar. I can feel the noise. I reach the bar, order a drink and turn to see everyone in small, closed circles. How do I break in? I decide I can't, so I focus on the people outside the groups. Their standing alone, with dead expressions.

And how can I engage a zombie?

I'm pretty good at meeting people for the first time. I don't have a problem striking up and sustaining a conversation. People genuinely like me. So why are so many of the networking events I've recently attended so bad?

1. Nobody's acting as a connector, and people have to sink or swim. You can't tell the organizers from the attendees, and the organizers are most likely perched behind a registration table or inside one of those small, closed groups. It's the organizer's responsibility to make sure that people are connecting, and the shy are included, by searching out the loners, getting them introduced around, even providing icebreakers. Get helpers to move around, meet everyone, be visible. Have them wear funny hats. Jeff Pulver's methods at his recent networking breakfast are ideal for getting strangers engaged with one another. He should be cloned and distributed live.

2. Just when it starts to get decent, the organizers stop everything and start making announcements. Sure, you need to market the event and let people know about what's upcoming. But do you have to do that in the middle of my conversation? You may have cut short a million dollar deal (not likely, but who knows?) Send emails out the next day, create a handout you can pass around unobtrusively while people are talking, highlight your events on your web site. Just don't turn the crowd into a literal audience.

3. The venue is too dark, hot, crowded, noisy (or lacks carpeting). Loud music may require that people stand closer to each other to converse, but it also makes those small circles even smaller. Think about the American Need for Personal Space (read about "Body contact and personal expression") and do a site visit beforehand. You might not be able to remedy all the problems, but at least you can be ready to work around them.

4. Your event is advertised as networking when it's really a presentation (and some of those presentations may be about networking.) Close to #2, although attendees may feel more baited-and-switched. Make sure you haven't set up chairs in the dreaded theater-style. Ban PowerPoints, can the lecturers, and don't focus the group's attention. Provide multiple food/drink stations, and spread handouts on tables around the room - anything to prove we're not back in school.

5. Too much distance between the "old guard" and the "newbies." I went to a playwriting conference at Arena Stage a few years ago - I think I even got an invitation. There were equal numbers of established writers, artistic directors, and struggling playwrights. At lunch, the status quo all sat together, while we huddled at the kids table. Know who will be attending your event. Get clear on the range of people likely involved. If you aren't able facilitate some connections between the old guard and the new, then perhaps you should cancel the event, or at least not hold it again without some real evaluation (and not that checklist you hand out asking us how much we loved you.)

6. The event becomes a figurative fishbowl. Your monthly meetup is a big success. People mark it on their calendars and email you about the next one. Those small, closed circles of participants are really a measure of your success. You wanted people to meet up, and they have. The trouble is, your event has turned into Happy Hour With Friends. Put more time into developing how you want the event to unfold, rather than relying on the "y'all show up" kind of hospitality. Go back to your original reason for getting together. Your original goal is probably light years from "we want to keep the already-acquainted talking only to those they already know."

7. Networking is scheduled for the end of a long day of presentations. This usually happens at conferences. I've been to - and organized - so many meetings jammed full of lectures, slides and handouts, where any networking time longer than a coffee break happens at the end of the day. By 6:00, people are ready for drinks, dinner and conversation, but with their friends. So many attendees have told me they're "burned out" at the end of the day, yet they find the networking to be the best part of their participation. I personally know it's almost impossible to provide for additional mingling time at an annual meeting, where even the lunches are programmed. Someone, someday, will realize this and make the necessary changes. I think.

8. Unclear, or too wide-ranging, event objectives. Sure, I know the main methods of successful networking involves meeting people first, second and third, and then maybe you can get into what you can do for each other. But it's tough to get enthused about a conversation on financial planning when I'm looking to connect on a possible business partnership level. Icebreakers are great to introduce a focused goal - and they don't have to be intricate and minutely planned. I'll bet Jeff Pulver didn't spend much time explaining his goals at the recent breakfast - and you can be reasonably assured the event didn't try to be all things to all people.
What would I have put down for my personal tag line? How about "Mike Ambrose: Making the Personal Universal."

No comments: