I’ve been hosting monthly events for entrepreneurs in Kuala Lumpur and the last we had one was in February this year before the Movement Control Order. I’m hardly a social butterfly and my once a month meetups are enough while I do most of my networking on LinkedIn and WhatsApp groups. For those itching to network, there is a way and with the lockdowns in place, virtual networking actually opens doors to a global network.

Here are some best practices that can work for you, even at a distance.

Before the Event
Invite the right people — and the right number of people. In the virtual world, we recommend limiting yourself to eight guests (including you), to ensure participants have enough time to speak and interact. Feel free to mix close friends and contacts you’d like to cultivate, but remember to make sure there is a sufficient mix of people who don’t know each other, so that no one feels like the “odd man out” when inside jokes are exchanged.

When it comes to timing, I would recommend 60-minute sessions as we tend to tire faster in front of a screen. It’s a comfortable amount of time to allow everyone to speak without feeling rushed. Pre-planning a theme of discussion will make it less messy and give more purpose to the conversation.

If you’re planning to have global guests, you have to be sensitive to time zones.

Once someone has agreed to attend, send them a calendar invite with a link to the video app you’re using. Any number of video services — such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Microsoft Teams — can work. The key is that it has to be easy for people to attend even if they don’t regularly use that service. Make sure to alert them if they need to download software in advance or if the event requires a password.

A few days before your networking session, send out an email introducing your guests to each other. You should include the names of the participants, a one-sentence description, and a link to their LinkedIn profile. It’s helpful for attendees, especially introverts, to know who will be there, and it humanizes the participants.

You should also share guidelines for what to expect. Your email can say something like, “We look forward to seeing you at our virtual networking session. We’ll start right at 6 pm, so please join on time. We’ll spend around 60 minutes together, with a mix of introductions and structured conversation. We’ll be joined by the great people below.”

During the Event
Make people feel comfortable. You should be there in the online networking room about 5-10 minutes before the start time to greet them when they enter and provide guidance about what to expect — just like you would at an in-person networking session. About five minutes after your start time (to allow people time to join), get started with introductions. Check upfront if anyone needs to leave early so they can introduce themselves first, and so it won’t be awkward when they sign off before the end of the gathering.

Ask each person to spend one minutes\ introducing themselves with a mix of professional and personal information, such as a favorite hobby or passion. Model this for people, so they get a sense of the appropriate length and tone. Then, as the host, you can choose a person and ask them to go next, rather than waiting for a volunteer.

After initial introductions, ask each participant to answer a specific question. As the host, it’s your job to structure the conversation so it doesn’t become dominated by a spotlight hogging guest.

Some great questions include:

How have you adapted to working and living while social distancing?
What are you enjoying most about your job right now, and why?
What’s something unexpected you’ve learned or done in the past month/year?

Any open-ended question that helps attendees share a little bit about themselves will work and give people time to open up. You want to give everyone their turn to share so you might have to interrupt to steer people back to the question.

After the gathering, send a quick follow-up email with everyone CC’d, thanking them for coming and encouraging them to connect with each other one-on-one, if they’d like.

Even when you can’t meet in person, that doesn’t mean business — or the need to build relationships — stops. In fact, without the natural interactions that go along with in-person work and events, it’s even more important to be proactive in your networking efforts. By hosting your own virtual networking events, you’ll be able to enhance your own network, as well as your reputation as a connector, despite being physically separated.

Written by Hanniz Lam, co-founder of Best Events Productions

We’ll be hosting virtual networking sessions for those in the Health and Wellbeing industry as well as the Tech and Innovations industries soon. For details, please reach out to us by CLICKING HERE telling us which industry and country you’re from.

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