Leadership Strategy

Storytelling Can Amplify Your Virtual Networking Events


That virtual networking event you’ve spent weeks planning is probably missing a huge opportunity. Online meetings fall into patterns that few of us question. But Eva Niewiadomski, founder of Catalyst Ranch, a creative meeting and event space in Chicago, has observed that it’s commonplace to squander the first few minutes of online gatherings.

“I haven’t seen a single meeting that optimized that time,” she says. People tend to welcome the people they know and get locked into a pre-meeting conversation. This turns what could be a time to welcome everyone into a time when newcomers feel excluded.

Niewiadomski offers solutions.

“Have some music going,” she suggests, to break the awkward silence and set a mood. And, as the host, you can pin yourself so that you are the main screen and the other attendees appear across the top. Then have a print-out ready with an icebreaker question. Have that show up in your screen. Ask people to take a look at this question and start crafting their answers. 

This is one way that virtual networking hosts can encourage guests to begin thinking of stories right from the minute they log in.

Why Storytelling Matters for Networking

We know that storytelling helps us connect with people everywhere. But, in our current socially distanced existence, it’s easy to skip stories. Virtual interactions are, too often, transactional interactions. In our online exchanges, it can be more difficult for interactions to flow naturally, which means it’s also harder for stories to arise naturally.

How can virtual networking hosts encourage the kind of storytelling that solidifies these connections? Creating space for stories will take more work and thought, but—no matter what—don’t skip the stories in networking. 

Researchers have documented that people feel “dirty” after engaging in “instrumental networking” – the type aimed at finding a career opportunity. However, with 10.1 million Americans currently unemployed, millions of people desperately need to be engaging in instrumental networking right now. Is it possible to have it both ways? To establish connections that lead to meaningful work, but without feeling gross about asking for leads? 

As I discussed in my book Let the Story Do the Work, once in a blue moon, I have been lucky enough to meet someone at a networking event with whom I have a truly genuine, productive conversation, as if I’ve met a new friend. This happens when we exchange authentic stories and keep each other intrigued and delighted throughout the conversation.

My chapter on networking explores how you can take control and make this happen. Hint: It’s all about using the storytelling technique of planting a good hook.

“We get to see and understand more of a person through the stories we share. Throughout time, our stories are what connect us as humans in a profound way,” agrees Jillian Cardinal, Community Manager at Showcare and founder and host of The Eventprofs Book Club. “As a story is being told, listeners will become enmeshed as they follow along, imagining what will happen next, which leads to more buy-in, trust, and engagement.”

Networking event hosts can also increase the odds that attendees will share stories—even in a virtual environment. And in so doing, they can create spaces that are both practical and meaningful, leading to career-saving opportunities for job seekers.

Here’s how hosts can plan ahead for an excellent event and start it off strong.

1. Plan the right atmosphere.

First, consider your timing. Virtual meetings mean that people may be coming from many different time zones. “Where is the audience located, and what is their current reality?” Cardinal reminds hosts to ask themselves when designing the event. “What is competing for their attention? How should this affect start or end time?” For a relaxed atmosphere where storytelling can occur, it’s important to minimize distractions—including those the time zone could create.

Second, consider your guest list. Even if you know everyone on the guest list through past in-person interactions, be prepared to meet them “for who they are NOW,” says Cardinal. “The way people prefer to engage while at an in-person event may be different than how they choose to participate online. Where someone may be outgoing and love to be part of the action in person, online they may prefer to talk in the chat.”

Niewiadomski recommends considering the purpose of the event as you plan the invitations. If your purpose is to give everyone a huge quantity of contacts and potential leads, you will want a big crowd. If your goal is to facilitate a level of depth, so that networkers are able to plant the seeds of meaningful relationships, a smaller guest list is likely better. 

But even if you don’t cap the attendance, Niewiadomski and Cardinal agree that breakout rooms can help participants get to know each other comfortably and on a deep level.

Third, describe the norms in advance. Before Leadership Story Lab events, for instance, our confirmation emails let people know how they can contribute to an interactive storytelling experience. We ask them to enter their name and turn on their video when they enter the session. We let them know, too, how late is too late. There’s a ten-minute grace period, but after that, we want to make sure each attendee has everyone’s full attention as they tell their stories. 

Fourth, plan on variety. Make sure your event agenda allows for multiple types of interactions that will engage introverts and extroverts alike, including:

Time to reflect. Give participants a question to ponder, and let them know how much time they’ll have to reflect on it.

The right chat options. Some people might prefer to insert a comment in the chat rather than jumping into the fray of a fast-paced conversation. Others may feel overwhelmed watching the chat fill up with comments as they also try to pay attention to the spoken conversation.

“I think the chat can be done well if used judiciously,” says Niewiadomski. It ties back, again, to the purpose of the event and the feel you want to create, she notes.

Cardinal suggests bringing in a chat moderator who can respond to and enfold the chat comments. This allows the main host to focus on being present with those who are speaking but not miss important chat comments either.

Breakout rooms. Niewiadomski recommends designating a “subhost” for each breakout room—someone who can set the right tone. This person can also be a timekeeper, making sure each person will have a chance to speak before the time is up.

2. Start strong.

Right away, create a welcoming atmosphere. Cardinal reminds hosts to acknowledge guests by name “and with a big smile” as soon as they enter the virtual space.

From the beginning, recalibrate attendees’ expectations, whether it’s having a question posted in the main screen, as in Niewiadomski’s example, or starting by sharing a quote and then showing how it connects with the purpose of the event, agenda and introductions, as my firm has done during online Story Labs.

Part of this welcoming atmosphere can include what Cardinal calls tour-guiding. She lets people know what to expect during the session and the best ways to participate. For instance, she might let Eventprofs Book Club participants know there will be a poll later on. If people haven’t used polls in Zoom before, they can quickly troubleshoot how it works. “It feels more comfortable,” she notes about tour-guiding, “and they are not taken by surprise. The element of surprise should occur in other areas of the event, not necessarily which tools will be used.”

“Tour-guiding” can pave the way for storytelling. For instance, if people know how long they will have when it’s their turn to speak, they will be able to plan whether there’s time to include a story.

3. Invite Introductory Stories

“At the end of the day, we as humans want to be seen, belong, and connect,” says Cardinal.  Asking people to introduce themselves is an opportunity to invite this.

“Just saying a name leaves little for the imagination to grasp onto. Plus, it is already on your screen!” she adds. However, if you ask people to give their name, hometown, and an additional tidbit of information, such as, “the first time you did or realized XYZ,” they can introduce themselves with a story. “Find something that will spark a feeling, idea, reaction, or commonality in people.” This can function as a warm-up exercise before asking people to share anything deeper about themselves.

You can further help people warm up to this by mentioning this prompt in your event invitation, says Cardinal. “This way, people can reflect ahead of time and prepare. Then, on the day of the event, they feel confident with their story.”

For more of a challenge: Ask networkers to take the first 10-15 minutes to craft a self-introduction. At a recent Catalyst Ranch staff event, Niewiadomski’s team introduced themselves by writing a 20-word bio. It had to be a real sentence! This simple exercise required Niewiadomski’s team to problem-solve as they introduced themselves, which sparked their creativity and led to an hour-long discussion!

In a larger group, you can invite volunteers to share their introduction, and then use breakout rooms so people can introduce themselves in a small group atmosphere.

With the right preparation and a strong start, you are sure to spark stories. Here’s more on how to keep the stories flowing once the event is underway.



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