Networking is a strange beast. On one hand, almost everyone hates doing it. On the other hand, it can be extremely valuable, and it's one of the main reason people attend meetings and events. As a meeting professional, it's your job to figure out how you can plan events that feature more of what people love about networking and less of what they loathe about it.
"[Most articles about networking] are aimed at giving attendees a pep talk so they have enough gumption to take control of their networking experience … Networking events are good for you, the articles say, even if the experience itself kind of sucks," author Lauren Taylor writes in a blog post for experiential marketing platform Event Farm. "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."
For Taylor, "aiming higher" requires embracing the host role. Often, the reason people dislike networking is that it's unstructured and requires them to take social risks. Planners can make events more comfortable by mitigating the risks for attendees.
"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," says Taylor, who says something good hosts do is introduce their guests to one another. "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 bigger events, you can use an app like EFx Texting to break attendees into small groups. "Each guest receives a text message with the names of their group members and are asked to find those people," explains Taylor, who says attendees have to talk to each other to find their people. Because they have a shared purpose, however, the conversations don't feel as fragile or risky as they otherwise might.
Another idea is to give attendees a prompt to help them start talking to each other. "This can be anything, as long as it starts conversation," Taylor says. "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."