February 19, 2021 / Esther Choy
That virtual networking event you’ve spent weeks planning is probably missing a huge opportunity. Online meetings fall into patterns that few of us question. But Eva Niewiadomski, founder of Catalyst Ranch, a creative meeting and event space in Chicago, has observed that it’s commonplace to squander the first few minutes of virtual networking events.
“I haven’t seen a single meeting that optimized that time,” she says. People tend to welcome the people they know and get locked into a pre-meeting conversation. This turns what could be a time to welcome everyone into a time when newcomers feel excluded.
Niewiadomski offers solutions.
“Have some music going,” she suggests, to break the awkward silence and set a mood. And, as the host, you can pin yourself so that you are the main screen and the other attendees appear across the top. Then have a print-out ready with an icebreaker question. Have that show up in your screen. Ask people to take a look at this question and start crafting their answers.
Why Storytelling Matters for Networking
We know that storytelling helps us connect with people everywhere. But, in our current socially distanced existence, it’s easy to skip stories. Virtual interactions are, too often, transactional interactions. In our online exchanges, it can be more difficult for interactions to flow naturally, which means it’s also harder for stories to arise naturally.
How can virtual networking hosts encourage the kind of storytelling that solidifies these connections?
Creating space for stories will take more work and thought, but—no matter what—don’t skip the stories in networking.
Researchers have documented that people feel “dirty” after engaging in “instrumental networking” – the type aimed at finding a career opportunity. However, with 10.1 million Americans currently unemployed, millions of people desperately need to be engaging in instrumental networking right now. Is it possible to have it both ways? To establish connections that lead to meaningful work, but without feeling gross about asking for leads?
Is it possible to establish connections that lead to meaningful work without feeling gross about it?
As I discussed in my book Let the Story Do the Work, once in a blue moon, I have been lucky enough to meet someone at a networking event with whom I have a truly genuine, productive conversation, as if I’ve met a new friend. This happens when we exchange authentic stories and keep each other intrigued and delighted throughout the conversation.
My chapter on networking explores how you can take control and make this happen.
Hint: It’s all about using the storytelling technique of planting a good hook.
“We get to see and understand more of a person through the stories we share. Throughout time, our stories are what connect us as humans in a profound way,” agrees Jillian Cardinal, Community Manager at Showcare and founder and host of The Eventprofs Book Club. “As a story is being told, listeners will become enmeshed as they follow along, imagining what will happen next, which leads to more buy-in, trust, and engagement.”
Networking event hosts can also increase the odds that attendees will share stories—even in a virtual environment.
And in so doing, they can create spaces that are both practical and meaningful, leading to career-saving opportunities for job seekers.
1. Plan the right atmosphere.
First, consider your timing.
Virtual meetings mean that people may be coming from many different time zones. “Where is the audience located, and what is their current reality?” Cardinal reminds hosts to ask themselves when designing virtual networking events. “What is competing for their attention? How should this affect start or end time?” For a relaxed atmosphere where storytelling can occur, it’s important to minimize distractions—including those the time zone could create.
Second, consider your guest list.
Even if you know everyone on the guest list through past in-person interactions, be prepared to meet them “for who they are NOW,” says Cardinal. “The way people prefer to engage while at an in-person event may be different than how they choose to participate online. Where someone may be outgoing and love to be part of the action in person, online they may prefer to talk in the chat.”
Niewiadomski recommends considering the purpose of the event as you plan the invitations. If your purpose is to give everyone a huge quantity of contacts and potential leads, you will want a big crowd. If your goal is to facilitate a level of depth, so that networkers are able to plant the seeds of meaningful relationships, a smaller guest list is likely better.
But even if you don’t cap the attendance, Niewiadomski and Cardinal agree that breakout rooms can help participants get to know each other comfortably and on a deep level.
Third, describe the norms in advance.
Before Leadership Story Lab events, for instance, our confirmation emails let people know how they can contribute to an interactive storytelling experience. We ask them to enter their name and turn on their video when they enter the session. We let them know, too, how late is too late. There’s a ten-minute grace period, but after that, we want to make sure each attendee has everyone’s full attention as they tell their stories.
Fourth, plan on variety.
Make sure your event agenda allows for multiple types of interactions that will engage introverts and extroverts alike, including:
Time to reflect. Give participants a question to ponder, and let them know how much time they’ll have to reflect on it.
The right chat options. Some people might prefer to insert a comment in the chat rather than jumping into the fray of a fast-paced conversation. Others may feel overwhelmed watching the chat fill up with comments as they also try to pay attention to the spoken conversation.
“I think the chat can be done well if used judiciously,” says Niewiadomski. It ties back, again, to the purpose of the event and the feel you want to create, she notes.
Cardinal suggests bringing in a chat moderator who can respond to the chat comments and enfold them into the main conversation when needed. This allows the main host to focus on being present with those who are speaking but not miss important chat comments either.
Breakout rooms. Niewiadomski recommends designating a “subhost” for each breakout room—someone who can set the right tone. This person can also be a timekeeper, making sure each person will have a chance to speak before the time is up.
2. Start strong.
Right away, create a welcoming atmosphere. Cardinal reminds hosts to acknowledge guests by name “and with a big smile” as soon as they enter the virtual space.
From the beginning, recalibrate attendees’ expectations, whether it’s having a question posted in the main screen, as in Niewiadomski’s example, or starting by sharing a quote and then showing how it connects with the purpose of the event, agenda and introductions, as my firm has done during online Story Labs.
Part of this welcoming atmosphere can include what Cardinal calls tour-guiding. She lets people know what to expect during the session and the best ways to participate. For instance, she might let The Eventprofs Book Club participants know there will be a poll later on. If people haven’t used polls in Zoom before, they can quickly troubleshoot how it works. “It feels more comfortable,” she notes about tour-guiding, “and they are not taken by surprise. The element of surprise should occur in other areas of the event, not necessarily which tools will be used.”
“Tour-guiding” can pave the way for storytelling. For instance, if people know how long they will have when it’s their turn to speak, they will be able to plan whether there’s time to include a story.
3. Invite Introductory Stories
“At the end of the day, we as humans want to be seen, belong, and connect,” says Cardinal. Asking people to introduce themselves is an opportunity to invite this.
“Just saying a name leaves little for the imagination to grasp onto. Plus, it is already on your screen!” she adds. However, if you ask people to give their name, hometown, and an additional tidbit of information, such as, “the first time you did or realized XYZ,” they can introduce themselves with a story. “Find something that will spark a feeling, idea, reaction, or commonality in people.” This can function as a warm-up exercise before asking people to share anything deeper about themselves.
You can further help people warm up to this by mentioning this prompt in your event invitation, says Cardinal. “This way, people can reflect ahead of time and prepare. Then, on the day of the event, they feel confident with their story.”
For more of a challenge: Ask networkers to take the first 10-15 minutes to craft a self-introduction. At a recent Catalyst Ranch staff event, Niewiadomski’s team introduced themselves by writing a 20-word bio. It had to be a real sentence! This simple exercise required Niewiadomski’s team to problem-solve as they introduced themselves, which sparked their creativity and led to an hour-long discussion!
In a larger group, you can invite volunteers to share their introduction, and then use breakout rooms so people can introduce themselves in a small group atmosphere.
With the right preparation and a strong start, you are sure to spark stories.
But once you’ve laid the groundwork, how do you make sure participants continue to feel comfortable sharing stories? After all, many may feel comfortable sharing a story when they introduce themselves, but may switch to more transactional conversations afterward.
Here’s how to keep the stories flowing.
4. Prepare great networking questions.
At virtual networking events, naturally people will want to share what they do. But prompting them with great questions can help them get to why they do what they do, says Cardinal.
Again, this will encourage participants to move from the transactional to more meaningful–and memorable–discussions that reveal their character. Cardinal suggests asking:
- Why do they do what they do?
- How did they get there?
- Through the good and the bad, the ups and downs, why do they choose to return to their current role each day?
- What has been the most valuable piece of advice they have received?
- What was their biggest “failure” and what did they learn from it?
- What made them passionate about XYZ topic?
- What did they want to be as a kid and why?
- What’s piquing their curiosity now?
- What are they reading?
Great questions are vital for transforming virtual networking events from dead-end small talk or awkward elevator pitches to meaningful connections. Leadership Story Lab’s set of 10 Types of Crazy Good Questions can help during networking or any time you need to drive a conversation deeper.
“I’m a curious person,” says Niewiadomski. She says that means that at networking events, she wants to know “what you’re dealing with and how I can help you.”
Good questions can help networkers reach this level of depth.
5. Make the agenda and time frame clear.
“Stories are always valuable,” says Cardinal. “When reflecting on which to share, they should ideally be succinct with a main takeaway– be it an emotion, idea, feeling, or call to action.”
Cardinal stresses that participants need to keep the agenda in mind and know how much time is allotted. “Plan your stories and anecdotes accordingly,” she advises.
My clients have found Leadership Story Lab’s “IRS” structure useful, especially when time is tight. Just remember:
- Intriguing beginning
- Riveting middle
- Satisfying end
On the other hand, hosts can choose to allot plentiful time for sharing stories. A 20-minute breakout session with one question and three people in the room gives everyone plenty of time to share a story, says Niewiadomski.
No matter the time frame, you can be confident that sharing stories during networking is the right thing to do. Stories naturally illustrate character. My clients notice that when they start with stories that show their character, their audience literally leans their bodies forward towards them and listens. In today’s world of shrinking attention spans, this alone is a high achievement. Not only that, their audience shares their own stories. Their guards lower, and they’re more willing to talk, discuss and collaborate. They become part of the networker’s team without even knowing it.
6. Lead By Example.
“Always model it yourself first,” says Cardinal. If you want people to feel comfortable sharing a story in their introduction, tell one yourself.
Know your audience. I always encourage my clients to tell “intersecting stories.” Find stories that will resonate with the group. Consider the life experiences they’ve shared when they introduced themselves, then consider what stories you might have that are similar to many of those in attendance. (Researching your guest list in advance helps too!)
Draw from your story library. Telling intersecting stories gets easier once you have more options to choose from. So keep track of stories as they come up in your day-to-day life and establish a system for cataloguing them. (I recommend a simple spreadsheet.)
7. Finish strong.
Niewiadomski recommends providing a “directive for going forward,” so that the meeting has “a life after the event.” Give participants time to exchange contact information, since they won’t have the ability to chat with these folks anymore after the meeting ends. Niewiadomski has attended events that share spreadsheets and have participants fill these with offers of ways to connect further.
Similarly, Cardinal recommends ending meetings with something that ties the community together. She ends The Eventprofs Book Club events with a group photo. She also recommends letting attendees know if you’ve scheduled upcoming virtual networking events where they can continue to connect.
After events, Cardinal sends out a “goodie bag,” a Google folder with raffles for books, key takeaways, chat transcripts and more. She shares the goodie bag with everyone who signed up, whether they could attend or not. That way, they may want to join the next virtual networking event.
And perhaps the official end of the event isn’t really the end, Cardinal suggests. “Let that conversation and connection continue to flow like a mighty river.” Allow people to hang out and keep chatting if they want to (after all, with networking, the connections are the point!)
Advice for All Attendees
Cardinal offers the following practical tips for all attendees of virtual networking events:
- Test your tech! Whether it be with an assigned program manager, or with a friend, do a run though before your event. Have them give you feedback as to positioning of camera, sound, way of speaking, your personality shining through.
- Always ensure proper lighting.
- Make sure the sound works with both your microphone and speakers.
- Speak to the camera. Decide if you prefer standing or sitting and ensure the camera is at the right level so you may make eye contact with it; this is who you are speaking with.
- Remember to pause and breathe.
- Use your personality; be you! If you are very emotive, then by all means, this is your spotlight! Think of how actors pull us in through the camera, you can do the same.
- Just like any meeting, do your prep work ahead of time. Research, practice, and ensure you feel ready!
- Remember: we are all humans! If your child runs in, your puppy is barking, someone knocks at the door, you really do not need to apologize! This is our current reality and, if anything, this adds some levity to the conversation when it does occur!
Whether you’re the host or an attendee at virtual networking events, you might be feeling nervous. Here’s my best advice for “Making an Entrance,” or, in other words, making sure you are in the right mindset to contribute everything you can to the event’s success.
Reena and I are always ready to help you work on your networking stories! Contact us.
And if you want to become an expert at facilitating other people’s stories at virtual networking events and beyond, learn more about our Certified Story Facilitator program.
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