All together now: Event formats for networking

In the first post in this series on event formats, I talked about discussion sessions, and in the second post I moved on to consider more hands-on sessions including workshops and unconferences. Next, I want to think about the various opportunities for networking – either as standalone events or as activities scheduled within a conference or other meeting.

One of the most valuable things about meeting face-to-face is that it gives some real world context to friendships and collaborations that may have started online. Events can also be a much faster way of taking a shared ideas or mutual interest and turning it into a useful exchange of information, a new project or an increased motivation for staying in touch in the future.

i) Making space for socialising

What is it?  The first “format” that I want to mention is really simple: don’t pack your conference or event schedule so tightly that there’s no time for the attendees to interact with one another. Make sure coffee breaks and lunchtimes are long enough that’s there’s plenty of time for everyone to recaffeinate, eat, visit the toilets *and* have some conversations.

Knowing how long to allow can include factoring in how many locations food and drink will be provided at, and how many bathrooms there are –  and therefore how likely there are to be queues! As a general rule, a coffee break should be half an hour, and lunch at least an hour, preferably 90 minutes.

These periods of “unstructured socialising” are particularly useful at large, international meetings where many attendees will have a list of contacts that they want to say a quick hello to during the course of the event. This isn’t intended to replace more organised opportunities to make new connections or ask questions of the speakers, but most people will appreciate some free moments to do their own thing.

Examples:  Coffee breaks, lunch breaks, pre- or post-conference dinners.  At the AAAS annual meeting, there’s a different “unstructured socialising” event or two each evening, including a social media soirree and a science writers’ party.

Networking - it's a piece of cake! Image credit: author's own

Networking – it’s a piece of cake! Image credit: author’s own

Tips/Ideas: As an event organiser, make sure that you’ve clearly displayed when the main conference sessions will resume – or have a bell, loudspeaker or other way of indicating that a coffee or lunch break is coming to an end approximately 5 minutes before you need everyone to be back in their seats. No one likes to suddenly cut off an interesting conversation because they weren’t keeping an eye on the time!

As an attendee, note that sometimes social events can be organised spontaneously, so it can be good idea to keep an eye on the conference hashtag in case a pub or dinner venue is suggested towards the end of the day.

Potential problems/other considerations: Not everyone enjoys the buzz of a room full of caffeinated people excitedly talking with one another – or maybe that space is just too noisy for a quick interview or first time meeting. If possible, choose a venue with multiple open spaces, including an outdoor area, which will will allow attendees to find somewhere to chat where they’re most comfortable.

ii) Tweetups

What is it? A tweetup is when a group of people – some of whom know each other on Twitter – decide to meet up in a pub for an informal evening of hanging out in person and getting to know new people. There’s rarely any kind of schedule other than a start time, and you don’t have to be on Twitter to join in (Indeed some of the more regular groups have crossed the streams and now have Facebook pages for the tweetups!).

Examples: For those interested in meeting scientists and science communicators, there are now scitweetups in many cities. At various points, I’ve been involved with organising ones in London (#ukscitweetup), Cambridge (#camscitweetup), NYC (#NYCscitweetup) and DC (#DCscitweetup). Separate list for all of the science tweetups, their organisers and any Facebook pages can be found here

One of the early #ukscitweetups where we went to a hover craft making competition... (I think! It was definitely science-themed) Photo credit: author's own

One of the early #ukscitweetups where we went to a hover craft making competition… (I think this was a tweetup – it was definitely a science-themed pub meetup!) Photo credit: author’s own

Tips/Ideas: Regular (i.e. once a month) meetings can help to build interest in tweetups, and having more than one organiser means that things don’t grind to a halt if someone is away. It’s usually a good idea to book a table in the bar that you’re going to – many will offer a drinks discount if you explain that you’re running a regular event. As tweetups are occasions to meet new people, make sure that you’re ready to include any first-timers – both online if there are queries about what the event is, *and* when they show up in person.  And if anything happens on the night like needing to move rooms or venue, don’t forget to tweet on the hashtag so that any latecomers know where to find you! 

Potential problems/other considerations:  While tweetups are meant to be informal get-togethers, sometimes it can make sense to piggy-back with a one-off local event such as a science festival to create the opportunity to involve new people. Likewise, if meeting in the same pub each month starts to feel a bit stale, you can try occasional special activities. The London scitweetup has gone ice-skating and tried wine-tasting, for example. Some tweetups that I’ve attended have included very brief “round-the-table” introductions at the beginning of the night to help everyone get to know one another. Other organisers of the events make pens and stickers available for anyone who wants to create a name badge. 

 iii) Ice-breaker activities

What is it?  Some less formal conferences may include ice-breaker activities on the first evening of the event – or during the initial welcome session – as a warm-up for attendees. These are typically a short (10 minutes or so) task that requires probable strangers to interact and begin talking to each other.

Examples: For both years of SciBarCamb we created name badges that required attendees to find others wearing badges with words/images that matched their own. Eva describes the game that we used in the second year here. The name badges at this year’s ScienceOnline conference were perspex jigsaw pieces that required attendees to find 7 other people with complementary shapes to complete a group. 

Finding your perfect match(es) – networked name badges at this year’s ScienceOnline conference. Image credit: author’s own.

Tips/Ideas: Set some time aside for any ice-breaker tasks at the beginning of the event, but don’t make them too complex to explain, embarrassing for participants or too difficult to complete  – the idea is to get people talking to each other, not to create extra stress for the organisers and/or attendees!

Potential problems/other considerations: There will always be no-shows and latecomers at any event, so try to build some redundancy into activities to ensure that they work, even if some people are missing. Be mindful that most people will be attending an event in a professional capacity so any ice-breakers should be appropriate for the dress – and social – code of the event.

iv) Speed-dating – including facilitated matching

What is it?  Speed-dating can involve various types of facilitation, but in its basic form consists of multiple pairings of two people for only a short amount of time, during which they can exchange intros and decide whether they want to continue the conversations once the official “matching” is finished. It’s a good way to meet a large number of people in a short space of time, specifically with the intention of determining if you have enough in common to make a deeper connection. It also means you don’t end up running out of conversation and feeling awkward about how to move on. 

Tips/Ideas:  Members of the Csikász-Nagy lab in Cambridge have created a speed dating algorithm that helps to pair conference attendees together depending on who they already know on the list of attendees, and who they’d like to work with in the future. More details here.

Potential problems/other considerations: There are various options for hosting a speed-dating session – it could take place during a lunch break or dedicated networking session, and you may want to use a lobby area to allow enough space for all the moving around. Another option is to set up furniture (a couple of chairs at a small table for each pairing) and have someone in the role of host to signal when it’s time for each couple to move on to their next partner at an adjacent table. 

v) Interactive business cards 

What is it?  There are now various online tools that can also be used to aid networking at events. Brian Kelly has written about Twitter as an interactive business card and here I want to mention the Blendology badges that we used at SpotOn London 2013. Blendology tap badges allow the conference organisers to pre-load (with the attendees’ consent) each name badge with the name, twitter handle and email address of its owner (or any other info they wish to share, including links to social networking profiles on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn).

When two attendees tap their badges together, their details are exchanged and a time stamp created. After the event, each attendee can download their own timeline of interactions as well as exporting the new contact details that they’re collected to their online address book. See the Storify I made about the badges at #Solo13. 

Tap badges

Tap to connect – Blendology badges at SpotOn London 2013. Image credit: Jason Wen.


Potential problems/other considerations:  Using these badges responsibly requires the consent of the attendees for their data to be pre-loaded to the badges, as described. However, if everyone opts to take part, it’s a powerful tool, not just for attendees to see actual data about how sociable they were and who they interacted with (See Eva Amsen’s blog post about her own data), but also for organisers to analyse whether the event met their networking expectations e.g. by encouraging scientists to talk with startup funders, or pairing technologists with communicators. 

3 thoughts on “All together now: Event formats for networking

  1. Pingback: Morsels For The Mind – 14/11/2014 › Six Incredible Things Before Breakfast

  2. Pingback: 2014 in blog posts | Social in silico

  3. Pingback: Cryospheric Sciences | 4 Reasons Why You Should Get Involved as an Early Career Scientist (& a caveat) – Allen Pope

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