A well-known fact about me: I'm a people person.
I will take the time and effort to talk to you face to face. I’m the person on the tube who isn’t afraid to make eye contact with you and I’ll strike up a conversation if I see you reading a book I like. Basically, I’m an introvert’s worst nightmare.
So when I head to an industry event, you can probably find me in one of the ‘networking’ areas, making new acquaintances and catching up with old colleagues.
But what if what works for me isn't right for everybody? Worse still - what if it's actively turning them away?
According to Psych Central, 45% of adults in the UK consider themselves to be shy.
That's an illuminating statistic. When we're planning events, we assume that all our delegates are extroverts, ready to network the day away. The thing is, the statistics don't support that. So, considering this data, we have to ask ourselves:
Why do event professionals consistently add networking to our agendas when we know it will immediately isolate half of our audience?
It's easy to see how we've ended up in this trap. People attend events to meet like-minded individuals and increase their contacts. If they feel they have achieved this at your event, they are far more likely to return year-on-year or to recommend it to a colleague. You want your attendees to have the best possible experience, connect with key influencers in their industry, or to start new relationships with strategic partners. The fact of the matter is, when networking is done well, it can provide people with great connections, valuable opportunities and memorable experiences.
The key to engaging our self-confessed shy attendees isn't to do away with networking altogether, alienating the 55% who enjoy them. No, to make this better, we need to reposition the idea of 'networking'.
How do we do this?
First, accept that your audience want to speak to each other.
Provide pre-event engagement opportunities - whether that’s through your registration website, an event app or social media. You want to build excitement and inform your audience. Let them know who else is attending, the topics of the day, who is speaking and give them the opportunity to submit questions beforehand. This will not only provide you with better insight into what they want to see and hear, but it will ensure they are engaged and excited about attending. Provide an attendee list on your app or website (password secured of course), so your audience has an idea of who they want to speak to when it comes to the networking breaks – after all, everyone needs a game plan.
Second, let’s stop calling it networking.
Your audience might already associate networking with prior lousy experiences. We’ve all been there – the awkward moment of someone getting your name wrong and you forever being called ‘Kathy’ or accidentally spilling your cup of coffee onto the gentleman’s cream chinos as you both reach for the last pastry (just me?). This is a great example of classical conditioning (if you don’t know what this is, Google it - it’s fascinating stuff!). What if we were to reposition ‘networking’ as something different, something more positive? Connecting over coffee, curiosity break, catch-up zone, innovation hub, free-time. Call it what you will - just anything to engage people differently and encourage them to connect.
Finally, the key is for your audience to keep talking.
Make it easy for a delegates to connect - even if they lose the business card of that chap who had a one-million-pound brief. Again, this links back to your event website or event app. Keep the content flowing after the event has taken place, start online discussion forums or let people ask questions of speakers or other attendees.
Next time you're planning an event, keep all this in mind. Build an agenda that creates conversation before, during and after the main event. Think up different ways to label 'networking', so all your delegates look forward to it. Really push the use of digital tools and social media to encourage people to take their connections into the wider world. But most of all, create an event that everyone looks forward to.
As a parting gift, I’d like to give you one final bit of advice. Always remember that everyone is at your event because they're interested in what you're discussing. A friend of mine once said ‘Interested people are interesting’, and that rings true here. Give your attendees every opportunity to share thoughts and ideas with peers and experts, and watch your event thrive.
Get in touch
Katie's been to more events than our whole team put together, so you know she's got some serious insights.
If you want to hear more tips from Katie on how to improve your next event, message her below.