Everyone is dealing with “zoom fatigue” these days, so it’s that much more irritating when you do make the time to hop on a virtual business development or networking session only to have it turn into a flop. I’m sure you’d rather have been billing or spending the time with your family or doing literally anything else, right?
Let’s instead look at some of the things that may go wrong and what you can do about them – I’m not talking about the famous “you’re on mute!” (I think we all know how to handle that by now) or other technical issues that crop up, but rather the true networking negatives.
Just like in-person conversations, you can end up in a breakout room where no one wants to volunteer to speak. And if there’s no moderator, it could quickly devolve into everyone looking at their phones or something else on their desktop. You may also end up in a situation where everyone or almost everyone is muted or has their video turned off. This is truly awkward, especially if making small talk isn’t your forte.
There are two likely scenarios here – the first is that you’re at an event where you’ve been broken out into groups with a subject to discuss. In this case, you can kick off the conversation by adding your comments on that subject. If no one else seems willing to say anything, as awkward as it is, feel free to pass it on to someone else – whereas in an in-person conversation you may not know everyone’s names, when you’re in a virtual “room,” you have the benefit of people’s names being displayed throughout. That may be the way to break the silence.
If it’s a general networking scenario without a pre-selected subject, you want to consider coming prepared – you should have an idea before you attend of what your goals are for the session and what you’d like to achieve. So perhaps you introduce yourself and ask some key questions of the group that help you identify the people you want to keep talking to. Make note of who they are for later. Again, if you need to call on someone, don’t hesitate. Yes, it’s awkward at first, but it’s worth it to keep the conversation going rather than sitting there in silence.
At the other end of the spectrum, you may have the monopolizer. This person either enjoys hearing themselves speak or is simply so passionate about the subject at hand that they can’t help but keep talking about it. Sometimes too, people are nervous and their way of coping is to keep talking (I will sometimes do this myself!).
Handling a monopolizer is very difficult if you’re not the moderator of the session or responsible for the event. The best way to handle this is to send a message to the organizer, either privately during the session (most platforms allow you to do this) to let them know that you need some help with moderation or as feedback once the event is over. Since organizers can’t be everywhere at once, this kind of feedback is really helpful and allows them to plan better for future events.
You can also handle it delicately if you’re comfortable doing so, but it takes some finesse. Smoothly interrupt the person speaking when you can, and say something like “that’s a really interesting point, Steve, and I’d love to hear what Jennifer has to add.” You’re not adding your own voice to the conversation (which you can always do later), but you’re inviting someone else in the group to share their viewpoint. If Steve takes over again, you can either repeat the move with another person or, if you know others in the group, you can privately message them to ask them to do the same. Again, this should be handled sensitively and is best done by a moderator if possible, but in lieu of a moderator, it’s possible to handle it within the group.
This is a Waste of Time
As I mentioned in the beginning, virtual events are pretty difficult to commit to right now. I have one on my schedule tomorrow, and already I’m thinking of how much other work on my plate I can get done if I skip some of the sessions. So I absolutely recognize the challenge that lawyers face when it becomes a question of billable work versus a networking event, particularly when there’s no immediate ROI.
And there’s never immediate ROI, right?
I’m not here to say that you’re going to go to an online event and walk away with a client. That *may* happen once in a while if the stars align, but it’s awfully rare. However, what virtual events are useful for is several things:
- For organizations that you’re already part of, they’re a way to connect and reconnect with people that you already know.
- They keep you top of mind with those people.
- It’s far less time out of the office than you’d spend at an in-person event.
- You can drop in and out of sessions much more easily than if you were attending an in-person event.
- You can connect directly with individuals on the spot through virtual means and calendar follow-up meetings with them immediately.
We all know these meetings aren’t ideal and they aren’t a replacement for face-to-face events. However, they allow many more of us to attend conferences and events than ever before – you’d never send your entire office to a networking event, but you can allow all of them the opportunity to attend at least part of a virtual one, especially at no cost.
We all like to think that networking as part of business development is an easy thing, that we can dip in and out of when we have the time. But the truth is that it takes consistent, conscious effort. Virtual events will continue to be part of the landscape that we operate in even once in-person events return because they are convenient and cost-effective. So we’ll have to learn to manage the negatives in a way that is workable so that these events remain accessible and successful long-term.