Saturday, January 25, 2014

Networking at events: It should be easy, not scary

I was at an event the other night and the MC said, "I hope you like networking, because that's what we're here for!" My immediate thought was "Uhhhhhh, no. Networking is the most frightening thing I could ever imagine."

See, when I think about "networking," I picture a room full of people that have to come up with excuses to talk to each other, come up with excuses to stop talking to each other when the conversation has peaked, and keep doing this for hours on end. I can't decide which aspect of that is the worst, because it's all the worst. There are good parts in the middle, when you've discovered your commonality with your current conversational target and you figure out how you can both benefit from learning about each other, but those good parts are sandwiched by anxiety-inducing awkward social situations.

Fortunately, I'm not the only one who finds it hard to approach large numbers of random strangers, and I've been happy to come across multiple forms of more structured networking at recent events. I wanted to highlight a few of them here in this post, to put out ideas for the event organizers out there, and to hopefully find out about other approaches in the comments.


I went to an EdSurge Womens Night last fall, and when I walked into the room full of people that I didn't know, much of them in the thick of conversations, I had a shyness attack. I immediately found a corner that wasn't visible from the rest of the room, and busied myself with my phone. And yes, I may have tweet-ranted my feelings a bit, as well. Once I get shy like that, I find it increasingly hard to recover, to muster up the courage to impose myself on someone - so I was ready to call it a failed night and go home.

But then the organizer shushed everyone, gave a little spiel about the event purpose and sponsors, and then encouraged us to give little spiels. She wanted us to let everyone know what we were there for - like if we were looking to hire, looking for a job, looking for partners. She didn't make everyone do it (which would have taken a while) but was encouraging enough that about a third of us took the mic for thirty seconds. I was one of those that gave a spiel, because I knew that I'm the kind of person that needs other people to approach me, especially in the shy state I was in then. After that, we all went back to mingling, but now we all knew a lot more about people that were there and had real reasons to approach each other. I was then busy the entire rest of the night, speaking with a variety of people who were interested in hearing more about what I was up to.

This will not work for every event, due to the time it takes -- but if the event is small enough, a simple round of introductions can do wonders for improving networking at events, for lowering the barrier to approach. There's still the problem of the social awkwardness of leaving a conversation, though, which is where the next strategies come in.

Speed Networking, Pre-Matched

Early this year, I attended an NSF conference for ~300 computer science education researchers. I'm new to the more academic circles, after being so heavy in the "industry" circles for so long, so I knew only a handful of the researchers. It was great getting to catch up with them, but I also wanted to meet a few new folks.

Thankfully, the conference organizers really wanted this gathering to be heavy on connecting and conversing with each other, starting with an unconference style approach to picking session topics and carving out time for 5 attendee-led discussion sessions.

On the first day, they announced a special session right after lunch: speed networking. Before the conference, we had all filled out our particular research interests on the registration website. They ran those through an algorithm to pick pairs of similar attendees, and printed a list of 8 numbers on the back of our name tag, each number corresponding to a pair. When we arrived at the room for the session, we found 150 pairs of chairs with numbers on them, and we sat in the chair with our first number printed on it. For the next hour, we rotated every 8 minutes and met someone completely new each time. It was a great way to meet people I wouldn't have otherwise met, and I found that 8 minutes was enough time to have enough of a conversation to figure out if we should continue talking later (or just to learn something new and move on).

There are a few logistical issues with this sort of session, since not everyone who signs up will end up attending and since the organizers have to pre-calculate the pairs. I had actually signed up too late, after they'd printed the badges, but I just grabbed the badge of someone who seemed similar to me but didn't make it to the conference, and I was happy with my pairs. And in the case that nobody sat across from me, I'd just triple up with people near me. So as it turned out, the logistical issues were quite surmountable, and I think a speed networking session like that would be a fun addition to many conferences.

Speed Networking, Randomized

Just this week, I attended a networking event put on by Berkeley Women in Science. I came as one of the "professional"s, expecting to meet many non-professional students. I was a bit reluctant when they first asked me to attend, because I heard the title "networking" and thought, "oh no, what if they expect *me* to approach people, because I'm so professional?" I expressed my doubts that I would be able to do that effectively and only decided to go when they reassured me that they would be facilitating networking via introductions and other means.

The event started with the MC introducing each of the professionals by name and title, and then we started a speed networking session of sorts. We were instructed to find someone that we hadn't met yet, that was the opposite of us (i.e. I found students because I was a professional). Then they gave us a question that the left partner would answer for 2 minutes and then another question that the right partner would answer. The questions would ask about how we got into STEM, the stereotypes we encountered, ideas for countering them. This went on for about four rounds, and then we went into free networking.

This was an interesting approach because they gave us the questions, removing the pressure of coming up with conversation starters. There were some drawbacks as well, however -- 1) since we found our pairs randomly, we were less likely to meet the most relevant people (I ended up chatting with many microbiologists and no Computer Science majors, which was interesting but non-optimal from a recruiting angle), 2) we didn't have any time for introductions, so we ended up trying to do that quickly or tying it into our answers, and 3) the MCs had to keep shushing everyone to move on to the next question, because people had more to say than they could cover in 2 minutes. I think this could work well with modifications, like having a 2 minute introduction time, and it'd work well at an event where everyone is relevant to each other's interests.

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