While I am not a big fan of hosted speed networking events on their own, I am a strong believer in integrating speed networking concepts with corporate conference activities.
No matter how many hands are shaken at conferences, there will always be a little unease about approaching strangers. By offering speed networking as part of your conference program, you eliminate this barrier. You also allow your attendees to meet more people in a short period of time, and with less effort, than they individually could during coffee breaks.
If done right, speed networking will provide one more added value: by helping to ‘match-up’ the right individuals, you immediately raise the value of attending your conference.
So, how do you approach offering speed networking at your conference?
There are different formats for speed networking at conferences. To select, get to the bottom of which connections are most relevant to your attendees. Is the thought of interacting with fellow attendees getting the masses to register for your event? Or do the expert speakers, and panelists attract the crowd?
1. Attendees speed network with experts and speakers …
… in a group – workshop style with focus on pre-selected topic:
Benefit for attendees: Networking with experts and interacting with fellow attendees at the same time. Sharing experiences in a group provides an excellent opportunity for knowledge exchange on one specific topic.
Conference registration procedure: Attendees select ~3 topics of interest during registration. A computer, or your staff members, assign time-slots and tables for each attendee. Then, communicate the successful registration, as well as your speed networking rules and background information to attendees.
Logistics on site: Seat each of your topical experts on a table, surrounded by up to 10 attendees. After a brief introduction by the expert, each attendee has 1 minute to introduce themselves, and to spell out specifics they would like discussed. The expert replies briefly, in 1-2 minutes. Follow-up opportunities should be mentioned. Then, the fellow attendees have 1 minute to chip in.Allow a maximum of 3 minutes for each attendee’s introduction and topic. For a total of 10 attendees, a 30-minute round would be the maximum. Then it’s on to the next table! Interaction with a fairly large number of people is possible in one setting, so I recommend this format for larger conferences.
Slot in conference agenda: Preferably hosted mid-way through, or towards the end, of the day. This allows attendees to go into depth about issues they have already heard about during the day’s sessions. And it’s a good way to engage attendees through the end. Best of all, discussions can be continued at the evening’s networking reception!
… individually based on the expert’s focus:
Benefit for attendees: Get one-on-one attention from experts, attendees might else not get a chance to meet. This set-up offers the opportunity to discuss matters in private, and encourages formation of individual relationships. It also allows for attendees to meet with a larger number of experts than the group setting would. The flip side: limited interaction with fellow attendees.
Conference registration procedure: Provide background information on the expertise of each speaker available for speed networking. Encourage your attendees to pre-select a maximum of 6 experts they would be interested in networking with. Have a computer assign time-slots, and tables for each attendee, and communicate the details!
Logistics on site: Set up each expert at their own ‘station’, and have the attendees rotate. Assure that the event space is large enough. I personally prefer two chairs on each side of a coffee table, but often space is scarce. In this case, set up rows of chairs facing each other. Allow for enough space to either side of the chairs, so a conversation can be held despite the loud noise level expected. Limit each expert exchange to a maximum of 5 minutes. Implement your rules, and assure, attendees move swiftly to the next table. This format is ideal for smaller conferences, and those events with little time for the speed networking slot.
Slot in conference agenda: I prefer these speed networking sessions to be held towards the end of the conference. Attendees feel more comfortable to discuss projects with expert speakers. And it’s an excellent tool for keeping attendees interested in the latter parts of your conference!
2. Speed networking among conference attendees:
Benefit for attendees: This set-up provides a chance to initiate one-on-one business relationships, or potential co-operations, with individuals. It’s an excellent way to generate business leads!
Conference registration procedure: Publish a registration list with name/organization/field of interest for all attendees for a sneak preview. Individuals can only register for one of the time slots offered, and won’t know who they’ll get to interact with during the rotation. Your team, or a computer, will assign the time slots. Remember to communicate time and location of this session to your attendees!
Logistics on site: One-on-one sessions typically are set up by random pairing. What I prefer for conferences with more than ~ 120 attendees, however, is to have multiple parallel speed networking sessions in separate rooms. Each room can focus on a topic, and networking can be done round robin style: one group of attendees moving clockwise, while the other group of attendees is stagnant. Then switch, so each of the two camps get a chance to interact with each other as well. This setting is ideal for smaller crowds, unless a topic of discussion is introduced.
Slot in conference agenda: Good option for the beginning of your conference. It allows everyone to get to know each other, and leaves enough time to follow-up during breaks.
Speed networking can be a horribly chaotic experience, if not orchestrated well. Communicate the rules to the attendees and ‘table hosts’ ahead of time, and remind everyone of them again on site. Also, have plenty of staff available to support ‘rotations’ – there is always need for support! Time always seems to get too tight for the attendees, as the sessions progress. Be sure the moderator enforces the schedule with a buzzer! And insist on a set-up that invites further discussions: Maybe over a coffee at a break-out room, or during an evening reception. Your speed networking attendees will thank you!
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This post was also published at Social Tables