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How To Make Networking Fun

If you’re bored at networking events, you’re doing it wrong. Here’s how to make connections and build a following while having a good time.

How To Make Networking Fun
[Photo: Flickr user Cedric Lange]

We all know networking is important, but it can be hard to force ourselves to do it. We have too many meetings and obligations; we have to stay late for work; we don’t get enough time with our friends and family. Who has time for another meet-and-greet to swap business cards, or a committee meeting with droning conference calls?

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But too often, we forget that our professional lives can, and should, be joyful. Being bored at a networking event isn’t a sign that something is serious and important; it’s a sign that something is seriously wrong. It’s possible to share ideas, make connections, build a following–and simultaneously have a blast. Charlie Hoehn, author of Play It Away: A Workaholic’s Cure for Anxiety, suggests scheduling a “networking meeting” to play a game of catch with someone, rather than a standard lunch or coffee. Similarly, if you can find a way to organize something different–and fun–people will want to come to your meetings or take part in your initiative.

That’s what Robbie Samuels discovered when he wanted to bring together Boston’s advocacy community to meet and share best practices. As I describe in my new book Stand Out, everyone thought it was a great idea, but no one had the time–until he repositioned his offering into a Meetup group called Socializing for Justice (SoJust). “I realized that what we needed was something that wasn’t a meeting, wasn’t a conference, and wasn’t work, and would help us avoid burnout,” he says.

Twice a month, nonprofit advocates and their friends would gather for a purely social event–Bowling for Justice, Cocktails for Justice, Knitting for Justice, and the like. Within six weeks, they were drawing 150 attendees to each event; today, nearly nine years later, the group has more than 2,600 members. Here are four strategies Samuels advocates to make your networking event more fun for everyone.

Make It Easy To Start A Conversation

Even for the most extroverted, it can be hard to enter a room where you don’t know anyone and strike up a conversation. That’s why Samuels and his cofounder, Hilary Allen, decided to build in conversation-starters. Participants all wore name tags that read, “I’m looking for” and “Ask me about,” which provided an easy entry point. “Right away, it was about creating a welcoming space and engaging with people,” Samuels says. “How could we do something that would help people feel engaged and connected?”

Break Up Cliques

In a lot of networking groups, even though the official goal is to meet new people, you’ll find groups of regulars hanging out with each other. Not at SoJust. As soon as you attend three meetings in a relatively short period of time, you’re pulled aside. “We remind you about the culture and how welcoming everyone was,” says Samuels. Now you’re expected to act like a host and be similarly welcoming to others–including honoring a prohibition against talking to people you already know during the first hour of any gathering. “The magical part is that if you focus on welcoming everybody, you’ll invariably welcome those who need it–demographic outliers, like someone who’s older when most people are younger, or people of color in a mostly white environment.”

Structure Your Event For Inclusion

To create a true culture of inclusion, Samuels says even your body language is important. He developed a principle to govern SoJust interactions charmingly titled “Bagels vs. Croissants.” Whereas participants at most other organizations’ events huddle in tight circles (like a bagel), making it difficult for outsiders to break into the conversation, SoJusters are exhorted to stand in a semicircle (like a croissant) so they can welcome strangers into the fold.

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Focus On Fun

Samuels’s target audience probably needed more professional development activities, but that’s not what they wanted–so he lured them in with events like Cocktails for Justice, and built a following so robust, it grew to become one of the most important professional development and networking venues in the city. Too often, we think of social change and professional success as deadly serious endeavors. But perhaps we need to ask ourselves how we can bring more fun into everything we do.

Samuels was successful because he realized that if he was going to succeed in bringing people together, it would have to be a social event they actively wanted to attend. In the much-heralded “attention economy,” it’s more important than ever to ensure people opt in–that you’re creating something so valuable, they choose to seek it out. When he provided the opportunity for tired and overworked nonprofit organizers to connect with like-minded peers, relax, make friends, and have fun, they couldn’t resist.

Think about the activities you do purely for pleasure. A classic example is taking current or prospective clients out for a golf game, and enjoying beautiful weather and several hours of in-depth conversation with them. But–thankfully for nongolfers like myself–that’s not the only way to do it. If you like cooking, think about ways to integrate that into your networking. Could you turn an art opening into a meet-up opportunity for professionals who share your interest? How about inviting a group to join you for an author discussion and dinner afterward? Or, if your group gets large or prominent enough, you could even start inviting authors or other business leaders to speak to your organization directly. In a world where the lines of work and your personal life are blurring, you might as well blend networking and your hobbies in order to make them both more fun.

Adapted from Stand Out: How to Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It by Dorie Clark with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright (c) Dorie Clark, 2015.

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Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and her new book, Stand Out. You can download her free self-assessment, “139 Questions to Help You Find Your Breakthrough Idea and Build a Following Around It.”