Open letter to: Networking Event Hosts

photo of dimly lit event

I’m sure you would agree that not all networking events are created equal. Too often, it feels like the decision to have a networking event was the result of not wanting to hire a speaker – and that’s the end of the discussion. [click to tweet]

What should a convener do to enhance their guests’ ability to make great connections at an event?

Lighting
Maybe I’m starting to show my age, but I really appreciate it when a room is lit well enough that I can actually see my fellow guests. Dimly lit rooms may work great when you’re trying to get everyone to dance, but if the purpose of the event is for guests to talk to each other than adjust the dimmer switch just a bit.

Music level
“What? Could you repeat that?” Ever leave a networking event knowing you’re going to wake up hoarse and feeling like you’ve been singing your heart out at a concert? Being able to see and hear fellow guests is a really basic need and one that many conveners seem to disregard in an attempt to have a more festive environment. It’s important to define the purpose of the event and recognize it can’t meet multiple goals and do them all well. So if it’s an after party that you want at the end of the conference, then clearly communicate that. If you expect your attendees to want to stick around to keep chatting with each other and exchange business cards, then plan the space differently.

Name tags
The template for name tags should be decided well in advance of the day they need to be printed. This is not a task to leave to a volunteer or intern to create last minute. Some common mistakes:

  • Organization or conference logo and graphics takes up ⅔ of the name tag. While branding is very important, it should not impede guests’ ability to interact with each other. Limit logos or graphics to at most ⅓ of the name tag and consider leaving it off altogether. There are many other ways to communicate to attendees what event they are at.
  • Font size is too small and cannot easily be read from 5 feet away.Guests should be able to spot a familiar name while walking through a crowd. Font size for first and last names will likely need to be different, with the emphasis being on making the first name easiest to read.
  • What would be helpful to include other than guest name?Depending on the nature of the event, it may be most helpful to include city, state (for a national conference), Twitter handle (for a tech conference), or organization name and possibly staff title. This information would need to be collected as guests register. It would not be feasible to include all of this information and make it readable, so choose what would be most helpful to your guests.
  • Misspelled name or missing nicknames. This is critically important and when not done well can have a very negative effect on the guest’s experience. It’s crucial that you ask guests’ to enter on the registration form how they would like their name to appear on the name tag – which may be different than how they would like to appear in a sponsor listing for example. Ideally the remedy for fixing an incorrect or missing name tag at the event won’t involve a Sharpie. Invest in a label printer to print on the spot name tag corrections that will look similar to the ones printed at the office. No guest likes being the “only one” with a handwritten name tag. Murphy’s Law: Your most important guests (major donors, keynote speaker, sponsor) is the one who will need to have a name tag corrected. Double check all speakers, sponsors, and board/staff.
  • Navel gazing. Most conference participants are given a lanyard to wear at registration. Unfortunately, a byproduct of this easy to wear device is that it will hang closer to one’s navel than to their lapel. So during the “networking luncheon” everyone’s name tag is below the table. During the networking break in the hall, you need to look down at someone’s navel while shaking their hands – making it harder to bluff that you remembered their name all along. One possible solution is to use magnetic name tags as the alternative when the clip/pin version won’t work with someone’s outfit. Also, have volunteers at registration who will be on hand to help attendees put their name tags on – on their right side which will move closer when they shake hands (not left side which will move away).

Not Enough Hosts
The best places to meet people are warm and friendly. If regular attendees have a habit of gathering in a corner to talk to each other and only each other, than newcomers will not feel welcomed into the space. To counter this natural effect, train your board, staff, and volunteers to be on the lookout for someone who is either a physical outlier (wallflower) or demographic outlier. Than go one step further and identify a small group of regular attendees and invite them to help create a welcoming space by doing the same thing. The request is that for the first hour they go out of their way to meet 2-3 people they don’t already know. Give this group of regulars a title and special name badge to help them feel more comfortable with their new role as host. This is a great way to get more shy and/or introverted regulars to feel more engaged in the room. These regulars will also feel more engaged with your organization and their retention will improve.

Space Constraints
Sometimes the number of people who RSVP and the number that shows up is wildly out of sync. If a space is too crowded it will restrict movement and diminish the guest’s experience. If it’s too empty the room will feel a bit like the beginning of a junior high school dance. Ask your “host” regulars to arrive 15 minutes early to be on hand to engage early arrivals who are most likely to be awkward and/or nervous newcomers. As the event organizer you are likely dealing with last minute details around a/v and catering, or trying to get a banner hung. You won’t be able to give your full attention to these early arrivals and if left alone they will stand around awkwardly not talking to each other. That’s why it’s so helpful to have your “host” regulars arrive a little early so they can be on hand to welcome these newcomers into the space. This small change will have a huge impact on their experience at your event. Logistically, if at all possible set up the room so the bar is on the wall furthest from the entrance. This will naturally encourage guests to take up more of the room instead of blocking the entrance while hovering at the bar.

Catering
If this is a cocktail event and most guests will be standing, than it would be ideal to only provide food that can be eaten in two bites. Serving filet mignon should be reserved for seated events, where a fork and knife could more easily be employed. Sandwiches with large puffy buns and an inch or more of filling are not easily consumed while chatting at a cocktail event. Since many guests will be holding a beverage, they will feel challenged to also carry a plate of food. If you have a budget for catering, plan to have several passed hors d’ouevres, as well a selection of stationary platters.

If carefully considered and thoughtfully executed, these six areas will make navigating networking events less stressful and lead to more connections.

 

In the comments
What networking event pet peeves would you add to this list?

Share what you find challenging about networking. Maybe your question will end up as the topic of a future blog post!

Robbie Samuels has been recognized as a networking expert by Inc. and Lifehacker, and profiled in “Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It” by Dorie Clark.  Check out “On the Schmooze” his new podcast.

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