July 29, 2008

Networking extravaganza

Yesterday I attended the world's biggest networking event. A "mega mixer," they called it. And the numbers don't lie: 30 organizations co-sponsored the event, and as of yesterday morning, 500 people were registered (although I imagine a number of those read that number in the paper and decided to stay home, as I wanted to do).

The mixer included food, drinks, wine tasting, prizes, speakers and exhibit tables from the sponsoring organizations, and was held at the Museum of Natural History alongside Mission Creek, a beautiful natural setting for a summer gathering.

There were some logistical flaws that might have been okay for a party, but not for a good networking event.

The food and drink area was so packed that I was lucky to have a friend pull a bottle of soda out of a bucket for me and pass it back. I never would have made it to the wine tasting table. As it was, the person who gave me the soda was swallowed up by the crowd and I never saw him again.

The exhibit tables were completely invisible and buried in the crowd, instead of set up in a place where people could take their time looking at the literature and talking to the sponsors. Perhaps along the walkway on the way up to the food!

The only PA system was in the amphitheater, so when the organizers wanted to start the program and move everyone to the amphitheater, they had to stand on a hillside, yelling and pointing. It didn't work. The amphitheater didn't fill up, and it only holds 80 people.

I stood on the pathway looking into the amphitheater, about 30 feet away from the speakers, and couldn't hear a thing. What a shame that only a fraction of the total crowd was able to listen to the speakers, especially when one of them was a "surprise guest." I never got her name.

So how exactly do you meet anyone new at an event so huge?

What worked for me last night was to find people I knew who were talking to people I didn't know! Rather than try to navigate a crowd that size in a somewhat chaotic environment, it was easier to find familiar faces and start from there. In this way, I met several new people.

The weird thing about this event was that it was part mixer, part meat market. There were probably as many people there looking for a date as there were people looking for business connections.

At one point, I realized I had just spent fifteen minutes talking to a guy whose full name and business I had yet to figure out -- you might say he was a bit of a class clown. I asked him what result he was looking for from attending the event, and his response was that he was trying to meet nice women he would want to date.

In that case, he had just wasted fifteen minutes talking to me. And then it occurred to me that I had just wasted fifteen minutes talking to him! I have no idea if his statement was true, but I sensed that he wasn't interested in making business connections at all.

I'm certainly not all business, all the time, and I actually like making friends at such events, not just talking business. But yes, I like a networking event to be fun and productive. Time to move on!

Would I attend this event again? Not sure, and I have a year to think about it. But I'm glad I went and put myself in that situation. I'm always outside my comfort zone at networking events, but I continue to attend them, just as I encourage people who are uncomfortable speaking to keep finding opportunities to speak.

Ultimately, it's in your favor to push yourself and keep at those things that make you uncomfortable. You'll only get better at it!

(If I could figure out how to put captions on my photos, the one above would say "Danielle, Maria and Lisa at the Mega Mixer!")

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