“I hate networking.”
That’s something you’ll hear from students, professionals, and employees that attend local events and conferences.
A recurring complaint with networking is how it makes people uncomfortable, even fake. Sure, you’ll have extroverts who thrive on social interaction, but many people simply can’t get over the discomfort of talking to strangers.
It’s not that people don’t want to interact with one another either.
In fact, according to research by Forbes, 85% of event attendees believe that face-to-face meetings are essential to building “stronger, more meaningful business relationships.” If anything, this shows that people want to join events but don’t know how to get the most out of their time. A pandemic in 2020 meant that face-to-face events were either shut down or converted to virtual sessions. But the problem remained the same. How do you engage attendees so that they can strike up conversations and build a community?
For community builders or business owners, the challenge is to design your events so that they facilitate meaningful conversations between your attendees. We’re talking actual conversations, not a simple exchange of pleasantries and small talk.
Why Meaningful Conversations at Community Events are Important
When you take an active role in encouraging conversations between people, it’s easier to get them excited about being in your event. However, what sometimes happens in many networking events is that organizers leave attendees to their own devices. This often results in people not talking to each other and staring at their phones the entire time.
Simply put, being more proactive in stirring up conversations ensures that people have a good time, meet their networking goals, and have a positive impression of your event.
Turning conversations into a community
But getting your attendees to network effectively is just the first step. By helping your attendees build relationships with one another, you can give them something to come back to: like-minded people, interesting conversations, and genuine friendships.
In short, a community.
This is what separates so-so events from the truly memorable ones. You want to create an ambiance, whether in-person or virtual, that facilitates meaningful conversations at community events to encourage professional relationships outside of it. This, in turn, makes them more likely to attend the next one.
The community itself can also be self-sustaining. A great community is one that allows people to build new relationships with people they haven’t interacted with before and encourages new attendees to join. Think of it as the gift that keeps on giving.
Thankfully, there are many ways to spark conversations and create community-building activities at your next event.
1. Give Attendees Name Badges
This may seem obvious, but too often attendees find it hard to tell who’s who at an event. And if they can’t tell people apart, how are they supposed to initiate conversations?
Name badges offer a simple solution to this problem, but they also come with other benefits.
For starters, badges help people call each other by their names.
Dale Carnegie once said, “Remember that a man’s name is to him the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” The simple act of calling someone by their name can make a good first impression and warm them up to a conversation.
Tip: A name badge can also communicate more than just a name.
For example, color-coding your name badges can help attendees recognize each other based on industry, affiliation, event objectives, and other pertinent background information. This information, in turn, can help attendees figure out who to interact with based on things they have in common.
Event name badges offer a simple but effective way to facilitate meaningful connections between people. Sure, they may not be the most creative or smoothest of openers, but that little bit of help they provide goes a long way towards initiating conversations.
How does this translate virtually? Encourage everyone to share a small profile on themselves beforehand. Take attendees’ permission to share this with the rest of the group. Ask people to enter their full name when a virtual platform asks to do so at login.
2. Optimize your Venue Layout
The layout of your event floor can have a significant impact on how your attendees interact with one another. There’s no such thing as a perfect room layout as this ultimately depends on the type of event you’re hosting, whether it’s a symposium, a workshop that facilitates discussions, or a more casual and relaxed mixer.
There are also certain factors to consider when planning your layout. These include:
- Number of attendees and available floor space – Certain layouts simply won’t work if you have too many people relative to the available floor space. Having fewer people, on the other hand, will give you more seating flexibility. Be careful not to make the room so large it looks empty!
- Event objectives – You need to decide what kind of experience you want for your attendees, which can be anything from learning from a speaker, sitting down with fellow attendees, or having the freedom of movement.
- Available furniture – Talk to your venue about the choice of furniture available or determine whether you need to rent tables, chairs, and linens for your event. If you want a casual mixer, for example, you may need to bring in cocktail tables.
Tip: When you get to the bottom of these variables, you can then choose from these examples of seating arrangements:
Of course, this is something that you can’t create during virtual events but we do suggest keeping the number of attendees between 8-10. More importantly, use virtual breakout rooms to your advantage. Design different themed breakout rooms that attendees can move in and out of to give them unique experiences. Creating such virtual experiences can go a long way in encouraging meaningful conversations at community events.
3. Create a Conversation Starter Guide
It’s common for people to attend events and struggle with the anxiety of not knowing how to strike conversations with other people. What you can do to make things easier for them is to provide a conversation starter guide, which can contain tips on how to initiate conversations, what questions to ask other people, and how to answer questions you may be asked.
It doesn’t have to be anything too complicated. For example, this guide from TED has tips like starting with a smile, doing a quick badge check, and preparing a meaty question.
Tip: Speaking of questions, we also recommend giving your attendees a list of pre-selected queries to steer them in the right direction. These include:
- What do you do outside of work?
- What did you major in college?
- What’s something only a close friend would know about you?
- Is there an annoying question about yourself that you often get?
- What’s a personal project that you’re working on?
4. Host a First-Timer’s Kickoff
Hosting a little get-together with your first-time attendees is a community-building activity that can help them get over any fears of being new.
Try organizing a pre-event meetup or workshop, virtual or in-person, for first-timers, where you can provide opportunities to meet your scheduled speakers. You can also have small networking sessions between newbies in a more intimate setting—this can be a great prelude to the main event
Tip: Use your pre-event gathering to get newbies to register and pair with a buddy at the main event. You can take down the first-time attendee’s name, organization, email address, and interests, and use that information to pair them with a returning attendee based on similar backgrounds. This will ensure that newbies have a guaranteed conversation with someone at your event.
5. Use an Audience Interaction Platform
Some of the most engaging events often have community builders acting as hosts, actively working the crowd, and introducing new people to each other. If you don’t have someone to do this, the next best thing is an audience interaction platform like Toasty.
Tip: Toasty isn’t just great for networking events. It’s designed to enhance strategy meetings (making them more productive by helping leaders know each other), orientations for new hires, and cross-department relations among others.
Take an active role in getting the conversation started
A successful event is one where people are conversing with each other for long periods of time, where extroverts are helping introverts get out of their shells, and attendees walk away having met their personal event goals.
As a community builder, your job is to facilitate these conversations by breaking down social barriers. Create interactive activities that put your attendees in a position to know and learn from each other. With these simple tactics, you’re one step closer to helping your event participants have productive conversations.
🙌 Well-organized virtual networking sessions are key to encouraging meaningful conversations at community events. At Toasty, we are focused on enabling impactful conversations between people. Check out how we do this.