As an agency that designs experiences to create meaningful business value, we think often about the effectiveness of the ubiquitous networking events. At everything from intimate internal functions to large-scale B-to-B conferences, it’s no small chunk of time that’s allocated for so-called networking.
But how can we make the most of that time slot? For that, we sat down with an acclaimed expert in the art of networking and relationship building, Darrah Brustein. A contributor to publications including Forbes and Entrepreneur and the co-owner of merchant services firm Equitable Payments, Darrah is also the founder of the fastest-growing organization in the country for peer-to-peer networking: Network Under 40 and Network Over 40.
She believes in networking programs that are human, natural, and fun – “no more stuffy events, no matter who the audience is,” she said — and allowing this perspective to inform the experience design. She agreed to share some tips and insights for helping networkers network better and helping organizers designing events that help them do so.
What is it about Network Under/Over 40's approach, structure, or ground rules, that makes it so successful?
It’s because of the culture we create and infuse into our events, our messaging, and everything we do. It's all about relationships, not transactions. About valuing who someone is, not their title. About being yourself, not putting on a facade. It's about sharing and adding value before expecting to take it. We marry this into everything we do, the venues we select, how we structure events, the emails and social media posts we share, and how our team embodies these value as examples of them.
One of the things people have come to love about your events is that they foster friendships, not just professional connections. When brands are planning their own events, are there times when it would be more appropriate for them to throw social gatherings rather than so-called networking ones? Or is the difference in nomenclature even significant?
Long gone are the days where business and personal are separable. I think having an event that mixes business and personal is great. Social environments build ties and bonds of friendship which ultimately result to a powerful and strong network. People have misconceptions of what “networking” means, so if you choose to call something that, be clear about what you mean, either explicitly or by designing an environment where attendees understand that it's not just a giant business card swap.
Of course. And hopefully most people know by now not to pass out resumes or bluntly ask for sales at networking events. But these events also aren't just about having drinks with someone. What do you see as the key differences between personal socializing and professional networking?
It has to start on a human level and from an authentic place of wanting to know someone new, not from a place of manipulation to get to your desired outcome nor from a single-minded goal of getting a sale or a job. It's about playing the long-game. To do that, you have to be sincerely curious about the people you meet and find ways to build rapport by asking questions. Never start a conversation by asking someone, “What do you do?” or “Where do you work?” It makes them feel that you only care about what they can do for you or what you can get from them. Things that may feel like small talk actually help to find points of kinship, so learning why they're in attendance ("What motivated you to come to this event?"), where they grew up ("Are you from this area?"), and the like can help you find points of connection ("I have family in Philadelphia, too! We spent every Thanksgiving there…”). Studies shows that people feel more trusting of and better connected to those with whom they have things in common.
That seems like a comfortable and organic way to start a conversation. And at the risk of getting too granular here, what’s next? How do you recommend transforming this small talk into a more meaningful, even productive, conversation?
You can ask something like, "What keeps you busy these days" which is open-ended enough for them to answer in a lot of ways, but generally they'll reply about work and/or passions, and you can dive more deeply.
No matter where the conversation goes, be on the lookout for ways you can help them! Maybe they subtly mention a need they have and you have a resource or contact. Offer it up! For example, I was recently chatting with the CEO of a Fortune 500 who said that his son is soon graduating from Tulane. We talked commonly about some fun memories of New Orleans and then I offered to him that I'd be happy to help his son in his job search if he needed it. He was blown away and asked if I'd take a call with his son, to which I said yes. Please note, I did none of this because I want something from him. I sincerely was enjoying our conversation and deeply like to help where I can. It gives me a lot of pleasure to see how happy it makes other people when something seemingly small for you can be so meaningful for them. This also quickly creates a bond and our relationship is off to a strong start. We then decided to meet for coffee the next time we were in the same city and talk life and business.
Moral of the story: Build a connection and add value, and use that offer of adding value as a reason to follow up and set up a call or meeting to talk in more depth. That's a better time to learn more about what he or she does and you will already have skipped the potential awkwardness of a first-time conversation and can ask questions about what they do, what they're working on, what challenges they're facing or big projects that are coming up, and then, perhaps, how you can collaborate or work together. Chances are, they're so floored by your intention to be helpful, that they'll want to know more about you and how they can be helpful. You don't do it for that hope or reason (has to genuinely come from a place of wanting to offer help with no strings attached), but it's also human nature to want to pay it forward.
While a lot of the responsibility for good networking falls on the networkers themselves, are there things event organizers can do to mitigate the behaviors of bad networkers?
Yes! Set the tone in your messaging leading into the event. You can be as explicit or more passive like, "We look forward to helping you make new friends and business contacts." Or something we do is have a question of the night that people answer on their name tag to break the ice and set the tone. Some examples include "What was your favorite 90s show?" to "What was the first concert you attended?". We also have ambassadors who wear shirts in our company color that say, "Let's Talk!" across their backs and they help interact with everyone and act as examples of the right way to conduct yourself. You can be as explicit as you want to be in your messaging and before event saying that this isn't a place to solicit or pitch. We also emphasize this by sharing our Guide to Better Networking videos to help offer education and others could use these or their own examples.
Lastly, how do you measure the success of a networking event?
This is tough because it's often intangible, and in many cases, trackable outcomes come down the road. The best you can do in the short-term is to feel that you've facilitated a positive environment for people to genuinely connect with one another and that they take a small handful of those contacts and continue to expand on their interactions at your event outside of it.
The event should be the catalyst for a new and/or deepened relationship. It's then important for your attendees to connect in a one-on-one or small group environment to go deeper and to stay in touch. We survey our attendees afterwards to ask if they have any stories of new connections made and that helps us to see about new friendships, collaborations, and the like that spark.