This is part one of a two-part series. See part two here.
Networking activities can add value to many corporate events, but how do you plan them? Do you keep them simple or make it complicated? And do they bring out the best in your attendees, or does it make people anxious about participating?
Let’s face it: you don’t hear the words “fun” and “networking” together very often. In fact, many of the members in our Authentic Networkers meetup group tell us they used to hate networking, and we don’t blame them. We didn’t like business networking at first, either. They started coming to our events, though, and changed their minds.
In the early days of our business, we visited networking events of all sizes to meet new people and generate leads. Everyone seemed to be selling something, and nobody was doing much listening. As introverts (yes, networkers can be introverts), the big crowds and small talk overwhelmed us quickly. We were meeting tonnes of people and left every event with business cards spilling out of our pockets, but we still ended up with very few connections that felt like they mattered.
It’s easy to understand why so many people feel apprehensive. Most open networking events are completely unstructured, and without structure, the people who dominate the room are the extroverts, people with a sales agenda and those with a lot of networking experience. All too often, they’re all the same people, and all to often, they’re pitching their products and services without qualification, which can leave attendees feeling like they have a layer of slime to wash off when they get home. As you can imagine, it’s not the best way to get good reviews or attract repeat attendance.
Fight or Flight
This begs the question: How can you plan a networking event that adds value, makes it a comfortable space for introverts and other marginalized voices and makes people want to come back? The answer isn’t any one thing. It takes a combination of science, art, and, of course, good meeting planning.
Let’s look at the science. In his book Pitch Anything, Oren Klaff describes how the human brain responds to an unsolicited business pitch:
“We survived for millions of years by viewing everything in the universe as potentially dangerous. …And that continues (unconsciously) to this day every time we encounter something new. It happens whenever we encounter a pitch from someone who wants us to do something. We are hardwired to be bad at pitching. It is caused by the way our brains evolved.”
You know exactly what this feels like. It’s that familiar fight-or-flight response that kicks in whenever someone tries to sell you something. Klaff explains that the most primitive part of our brain (the “croc brain”) constantly scans for threats. The croc brain is what sorts dangerous ideas from interesting ones. It marks everything non-essential as spam. In terms of your next networking event, this means those unsolicited business pitches will almost always be perceived as a threat, or ignored.
We decided to start our own networking group to address this issue. Our first objective was to find a way to dial down the pitching. We didn’t want a completely pitch-free environment; after all, the idea was still to make business contacts. But we wanted people to bypass the feeling of threat, of being cornered.
How did we do this successfully? By fostering great conversations.
We envisioned a community of entrepreneurs who got together to support each other rather than sell to each other. We built our group culture around a single rule: you can talk about your business, but you must have a real conversation first.
Of course, to create real conversations, we had to create a culture where everyone’s voice mattered. We didn’t want the room to be dominated by a vocal minority (who does?). Many of the members of our networking group identify as introverts, Highly Sensitive Persons, visible minorities, or non-native English speakers — all groups that tend to feel marginalized a lot of the time. We asked them about their experiences in networking:
“I need structure in social settings to avoid feeling awkward. I need to avoid feeling cornered, and if I see a closed circle or a clique I am uncomfortable inserting myself.” — Mandi
“As an introvert and a highly sensitive person, I’m more sensitive to noise and I experience networking events in microscopic detail. It takes me longer to get to know my fellow networkers and become curious about them.” — Cherie
“Some of us are extreme introverts with serious social awkwardness. What social people take for granted as normal and natural is just beyond my comprehension. We are fighting our own demons to get out of our comfort zone.” — Jorge
Perhaps you’ve experienced this yourself. You know there’s value in an event but it feels cliquey, and you aren’t compelled to speak up. Luckily, there are ways of creating safety in a networking environment — this is the art of fostering a networking culture.
Keep up with Corporate Meetings Network for part two of Beyond the Pitch Fest.