Help delegates swap knowledge, not business cards

7 minute read

Professional networking is a vital part of the conference-going experience, but too often it’s a game of nerves and chance.

In the benefits of conference attendance, professional networking comes up top trumps. Even in the research world, where attendees are challenged to publish or perish, conferences also act as an important real-life social network, where the type of bonds that result in game-changing research are formed.

When Hurricane Issac scuppered the 2012 American Political Science Association’s Annual Meeting, scientists turned their attention to the effects the event’s cancellation had on delegate co-authorship. The results, published in The Economic Journal, suggest that scientists who attend conferences are more likely to co-author papers than those who stay at home.  

“Even in this connected world, personal communication – face-to-face interactions – still matter, to foster collaboration and launch productive scientific partnerships,” stated one of the paper’s co-authors, Raquel Campos.

Good conferences facilitate the kind of conversations that cross-pollinate academic and industry research. They help delegates find each other, learn, and leave enriched by their event experience.

And yet, is the type of professional networking that’s prevalent at research conferences delivering enough of what delegates want? ASAE’s 2017 Decision to Attend study found that networking was in the top three deciding factors – along with education and destination – for delegates. Yet plenty of conference organisers assume their delegates will make the connections they need to make in the refreshment breaks and hallways between sessions.

And at that old-favourite of networking events, the conference reception.

A game of nerves and chance

“I run into very few people that don’t feel nervous or intimidated or anxious walking into a room of thirty or a hundred or five hundred people and having to forge their way,” says Amanda Kaiser. “The standard reception where you throw everyone into a big room with drinks and appetisers simply doesn’t work.“ It’s intimidating for newer members, first-time attendees and early-career researchers, “so people opt out of traditional networking events. They stay in their hotel room or walk around the city instead.”

Amanda is a qualitative researcher in the associations space and she’s interviewed more than 400 members about their experiences, including that of conference-going. “We tend to think of sessions as professional development and of the reception as professional networking. But in attendees’ experience, they’re not divided like that. Folks go to conferences and they’re hoping to find answers to their questions, and networking is part of that.”

But, leaving aside the burden that traditional networking events place on the introverts and ambiverts among us, what about extroverts? Surely they thrive in settings like the conference reception? “Every time I get an extrovert on the phone, I ask them about networking events,” says Amanda. “They’ll walk into a room of people and start conversations all over the place and they’ll love it. But what they still say is that traditional networking doesn’t work for them because it’s too reliant on luck.”  

There’s an assumption that delegates will just find their way. But with rising restrictions on travel and increasing levels of competition in the events market, it’s not good enough to have meeting the right people hinge on sheer luck.

Re-thinking the substance

Then there’s the issue of substance. “As an academic, you’re relying on conferences for these moonshot moments where anything might happen,” says Sophie Silkes of e180. “Where you can finally connect with people you’ve been collaborating with from a distance or with someone new you might want to collaborate with.

“But it can be extremely anxiety-inducing and tiring to even just fish through name tags and figure out who you want to be connected to and then try and have something more substantial than a 15-minute meet and greet,” says Sophie.

Too often, the professional networking experiences that conferences provide keep delegates trapped on a superficial introductory level or find them stooping to blatant self-promotion. “Networking is almost a triggering word at this point,“ says Sophie.

But what if we reframed it so that the substance comes before the activity, and networking becomes a byproduct, rather than an activity in and of itself? We talk about “networking”, but what that actually means to your attendees is stuff like “I made friends.”

And we don’t gain friends by swapping small talk and business cards.

So how do you move beyond traditional networking events, to help your delegates find support, make friends and get the answers to their questions? Here are three ideas.

Professional networking as mentoring

“People are hungry for mentoring,” says Melissa Baese-Berk, an associate professor of linguistics at the University of Oregon. “I knew this was the case but it’s even bigger than I thought.”

Melissa is part of a committee within the Linguistic Society of America that facilitates Pop-Up Mentoring at meetings within the discipline. These sessions give participants a chance to have a one-time meeting with a mentor who’s not personally invested in their career. “Being mentored has this reputation of having a guru who solves all your problems. But sometimes what you need is a short-term mentoring experience on issues that are maybe too sensitive – or too banal – to take to your official mentor,” says Melissa.

Mentors and mentees are matched before the event based on interests, and sessions take place during lunch, so they don’t distract from the main programme. Mentoring also provides more junior attendees with an incredibly valuable one-on-one networking opportunity, “without having to approach a more senior person and start the awkward conversation of, ‘ I read your paper in the Journal of Phonetics…’” says Melissa.

Inspired by the Women in Cognitive Sciences Speed Mentoring programme, the sessions are open to anyone, but the focus has been on under-represented groups: people of colour, women, and the LGBTQ community. And the sessions offer up the kind of support and solidarity that comes from professional networking at its best. “We hear from a lot of young women who have a male mentor at their institution, for example. Getting to sit down with a senior female academic who tells them, ‘You’re not crazy, this is a thing I’ve also experienced,’ is really empowering.”

“It’s really empowering for a lot of these people to realise they’re not alone, that there is a lot of solidarity in the field. They’re feeling heard and seen in a way that’s different than they might have experienced before at a meeting like this.”

Professional networking as problem-solving

“People say they join associations and attend conferences for professional development and professional networking, but these are just socially-acceptable terms. They actually join because they want to belong or be seen,” says Amanda. She wants to see conference organisers curate more networking events to aid delegates in building relationships that go beyond the superficial.

One such example is roundtable discussions that divide delegates along topic or subgroups. For example, you could get every academic department head into a room for one hour with the aim of working through four big issues in the discipline. “There’s something about doing work together that helps people meet each other in a non-anxious way. But it also helps them to form some lasting bonds, “ says Amanda.

Another option is multiple topic-specific tables. Each table gets a topic card with topics that are near and dear to the hearts of your attendees. People who are interested in particular topics go to that table to discuss.

But to get delegates really talking at your roundtables, set the expectation of confidentiality and non-judgmental listening advises Amanda. You could have a moderator stand up at the beginning and say ‘What we’ve found is people share sensitive information about themselves and their careers, so everything that’s said in the room stays in the room.’” Set the expectation of total confidentiality or the Chatham House Rule, and it’ll quickly become the expected etiquette at these sessions.

And for thorny issues in your field, Amanda suggests you prep table moderators to help get delegates over the hurdle of being the first person to say, “I have this issue…” “Maybe somewhere in that conversation the moderator also sets the expectation that attendees don’t have to hold back. ‘I want to put my problem out there and I’d love to hear if anyone else has successfully navigated this problem.’” This gives your delegates the chance to get into the meat of things and hear from others about their experiences with difficult issues.

“When our members talk about going to a really good conference for the first time, what they’ll say is ‘I met other people who feel exactly the same way that I do about a number of things,’” says Amanda.

“Even knowing that is very cathartic.”

Professional networking as learning (and teaching)

“We’re trying to bring back an element of self-direction into the whole process of meeting new people,” says Sophie. Her company, e180, created the Braindate online platform which helps conference delegates to connect and meet one another based on topics or issues they need help with, and knowledge they have to share. Delegates can also search for people and keywords related to what they’re hoping to learn about and at an agreed time, they converge in a centralised place to meet their conference “braindate”.

Using a platform like Braindate removes the pressure inherent in the traditional professional networking dynamic of having to be courageous and talk to strangers “as though that’s the thing you’re comfortable doing,” says Sophie. But it also helps delegates jump straight to the heart of the matter. “Because you’re meeting based on an already-agreed topic, you show up and immediately do away with the small talk. You dive right in and that helps move things along quickly,” says Sophie.

Delegates don’t need to rely on nerves to propel them into someone’s path. But the format also “reorients the focus from name and job title back to peer knowledge that people have to offer,” says Sophie. “Because we believe that’s that beautiful piece that you should take away from these awesome events.”

This type of peer-learning networking event also helps foster that sense of community within your conference tribe. “People’s motivations [to learn or teach via Braindate] may change depending on whether they’re just getting started or are more seasoned, but we find everyone across the board feels like, ‘I’m here in a community.’

“And the desire to contribute to your community’s richness is really strong, no matter who you are.“

Closing thoughts

At its worst, professional networking is an afterthought, resulting in superficial and stress-filled sessions. But, more than ever, researchers are looking for meaningful events that will have a genuine impact on their research and their career. By stepping out of the lane and curating your networking events, you can better serve your attendees’ needs to learn, build bonds and feel like they’re part of a bigger community.

As Amanda puts it: “Standing there holding a glass of wine and a bacon-wrapped shrimp doesn’t help anyone form strong relationships.”

Dee McCurry

Dee moved back from London to help Ex Ordo tell their story. Although she finds it tough to find turmeric lattes and other hipster nonsense in Galway, she enjoys writing about the weird and wonderful world of research conferences.