How to Plan Networking Events that People Actually Want to Come to
Networking events generally get a bad wrap, as a necessary evil of being in business. I'd like to make it my mission to turn this myth on it's head. They are tricky, because often they fall somewhere between the realms of 'work' and 'play'. You have plenty of tools at your disposal to manage this transition, depending on how you are trying to make people feel. As the delicious Maya Angelou says:
I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
So, always have in the front of your mind how you would like people to feel when they step into your event. Here are a few tips and tricks to keep in your arsenal for when you are next planning a work-related get together:
1. Ensure the event has a clear beginning, middle and end. One of the tropes of a not-so-well-organised networking event is that people float in and out throughout the evening. This means that your numbers can fluctuate drastically, and your evening can become disjointed. Give people a advanced warning of what their welcome will look like. Will you be providing name badges? Will waiters be standing on parade with prosecco? Does the evening kick off with some kind of presentation? If you prepare them in advance and they know what to expect, they can plan their evenings accordingly. An example of a note to send out to attendees ahead of time might be;
Dear #PushForProgress Networking Attendees,
We are looking forward to gathering with you this evening. To give you an idea of the rhythm of the evening, please arrive between 6pm & 6.30pm, grab a glass of prosecco or softie of your choice, and make yourselves at home.
We will start the evening at 6.30pm with a presentation by Daisy Lente, HR Director at the BFI who will give us an insight into the BFIs recently launched inclusivity initiatives (thanks Daisy!) Then there will be plenty of time for low-key conversations after that, with canapes aplenty.
If you aren't sure who to talk to, I will be around all evening to make introductions, and I attach the guestlist for your reference ahead of time.
I'm looking forward to connecting with all of you, and do keep me posted on any followups and projects that come out of our evening together.
See you tonight!
2. Keep people hydrated, have plenty of ice to hand, and don't serve smelly crisps! Is there anything more unpleasant than having a conversation in close proximity with someone who has just scoffed half a bowlful of cheese and onion crisps, chased with some warm white wine? Gross, right? Yet this is so often the fayre that we are offered at after-work networking events.
Carefully selected food and drink doesn't have to have a huge price tag. Maybe a series of natter platters laid out throughout the venue? Plenty of bread and salty butter, olives, charcuterie and cheese will always get people talking. It is relatively inexpensive, looks beautiful and luxurious, and has the added benefit of not requiring cutlery (just cocktail sticks), and not being limited to one area of the venue.
If you are going to serve wine, always make sure it is on ice! Ice buckets make great centrepieces, and having extra ice available means no one has to drink room-temperature white wine, a relief for all involved! Also make sure you have bottled water available, particularly if you are expecting guests to watch a presentation. Think about how you feel at the end of the working day. What are your needs? Depending on how low-key and playful you want your event to be, you could even have slippers at the door and give people mugs of tea! It would certainly ensure a flurry of follow up emails in your inbox the following day!
3. Get the seating right - comfort and varied levels are key. People's choice of seating is extremely telling - networking newbies might prefer the more transitory option of a stool or 'dining-style' chair, while veterans of the scene may opt for a slouchy armchair, and wait for people to come to them. Both are valid positions, and your event must cater for rookies, hard-hitters, introverts and extroverts. This doesn't have to take the form of a circle of cushions and burning sage, but there are lots of ways of making people feel comfortable.
4. Light, light, light! In events, as in life, secondary lighting is your best friend. It is impossible to feel comfortable and relaxed if you are basking in the glow of 800W overhead halogen bulbs, or LED panel lighting. Depending on the type of venue you have gone for, see if the lighting is dimmable, or if you can arrange some uplighter standing lamps. There is a balance to be struck here - you don't want to leave your guests in the dark - but a more gentle, golden light will help to switch people from 'work mode' into 'play mode'.
5. Everyone loves a goodie bag. Depending on the purpose of your event, consider providing some kind of takeaway. This could be as simple as a bag of sweets for the train home, with your business card attached as a label. If you are a tech company, then maybe you can invite people to download an app that gives them access to your showreels and BTS footage of your current work. Guests love to feel spoiled, and a physical prompt from the event can be useful to remind them to follow up on any discussions that were had on the night.
6. Ask for help if you need it! Networking events are simple in format, but it takes a lot of thought and graft to organise an event that people want to attend. Consider roping in another colleague or friend to help with the planning and give you feedback on your ideas. Equally, if you would benefit from an outside perspective in the form of an inspo session or a more long term partnership, you know where I am!
Let's re-brand the networking event, one natter platter at a time!