By: Catarina Moreno, Consultant
Creating meaningful networking opportunities can be a challenge at the best of times, but the virtual format that we all had to embrace over the past year has added another layer of complication. For associations, whose raison d’etre is fostering connections, this has been a real challenge.
Seeking the silver lining in this situation, I want to suggest that the digital-only world provides us with an interesting arena for experimentation. In 2021, we are still operating in a zone of permission where many people, including clients and members, are more open to new ways of doing things. While change can be daunting, let’s consider the potential for more accessible meetings, deeper engagement, and lower-cost events to only name a few of the possible advantages.
Not all gatherings can count on external facilitators, but you can do a lot on your own by keeping in mind three key principles for your session design. If you want to dive in further, Priya Parker’s The Art of Gathering is an excellent and delightful read on how to improve all types of gatherings.
Networking over the past 10 months has unfortunately often meant 27 people fighting for airtime in a one-room zoom-call conversation or, as a slight improvement, included break-out rooms. It does not have to be like that.
Some elements from structured and curated networking approaches can easily be translated into digital events. For example, Conversation Cafe is a simple structure for conversations that helps people have profound conversations. It consists of four rounds that invite short contributions, reflections and provides space for free-flowing conversation. While it can be useful to have a host to guide the rounds, it is not a must. This makes it a great design to consider for digital networking events.
With this example in mind, let’s explore three key principles that will improve your digital gathering by 80%.
Set a purpose
Consider what you want the main purpose of your session to be. For example, for a networking event, you might identify that the purpose is to facilitate meaningful connections with peers and an exchange of perspectives. All design flows from a clear purpose so this needs to be your starting point.
Allow for human connection
Anybody who has ever been on a 27-people zoom call will agree that it is impossible to have an engaged conversation in such a big group. As with in-person facilitation, small groups are an important tool to allow for meaningful conversations. This is not to say that professional facilitators cannot design large-group processes, but your best bet is likely a group not bigger than six. In bigger groups, individuals often struggle to be heard and it can invite a few to take center-stage.
Minimal but enough structure
Being thrust into free-flow conversations with new people is generally awkward for all but the most extroverted. Having a structure helps keep participants on topic, on time and in conversation with each other. In our conversation cafe example, the rounds have different instructions, and this allows for all participants to be heard, encourages listening and reflection on what people are sharing.
What kinds of networking designs have you been experimenting with? What have you observed?