by Matt Alderton | July 11, 2019
In business in general -- and at meetings and events, in particular -- networking is a necessary evil. Which is to say: Even if they hate doing it, most people recognize that it yields tremendous benefits for their career and for their company. At least, it would if they could master the art of doing it well.

A new study by scientists at England's Loughborough University aims to help meeting attendees do exactly that.

Published by the university in partnership with Imago Venues, its meetings and events arm, the study is based on observational research conducted by conversation analysts Professor Elizabeth Stokoe and Dr. Magnus Hamann, who watched professionals during networking events in order to determine how the environment affected their behavior and communication.

"We know that when delegates attend conferences, they tend to find the most engagement from the networking sessions or breakout periods and not necessarily the content of the conference," said Emma Boynton, head of sales and marketing at Imago Venues. "It was important for us to commission this research to help people make the most out of those interactions but, more importantly as a venue, to raise the question of whether organizers and venues can be doing more to better facilitate great networking."

Based on their research, Stokoe and Hamann concluded that, in fact, they can. 

"The findings show that, with relatively minor changes to the networking environment, organizers and venues can really energize their events," Boynton continued.

Nevertheless, the responsibility for successful networking lies mostly with attendees. For them, the study yielded the following five tips:

1. Seize opportunities in lines and at tables.

Successful networking starts with knowing where to position oneself, according to Stokoe and Hamann, who say the best places to network are in food and drink lines, and at either standing or sitting tables.

"The researchers found that food and drinks queues were easy to join and exit, but sitting at a table locked people into a longer chat," Loughborough University reported. "People often moved in pairs from the queue to a standing table to continue the conversation -- or moved off in separate directions."

2. Communicate with cups.

A cup holds more than your coffee or cocktail. It also holds inside it an invitation to speak with you, found Stokoe and Hamann, who suggest arriving at networking events early, getting a drink and placing your cup on a standing table.

"The visibility of the cup creates an environment for people to interact," the Loughborough University report found. "It invites others to place their own cups on the table to create a cluster, and they start talking."

By the same turn, other people's cups can be a gateway to conversations. "A great way to start a conversation in the networking spaces is to approach a standing table, armed with a coffee cup or plate, and ask the person already at the table, 'Is it OK if I also put my cup down here?'" the study suggested. "Once you get the go-ahead, you can assess whether they want to talk more. They'll indicate this by moving their body toward you and asking you something -- or not."

3. Join a circle.

Look for "interactional circles," which are circles of three to four people in which participants already are networking with one another, advise Stokoe and Hamann.

"When they talk, people arrange their bodies so that they have equal access -- gaze, hear-ability -- to everyone in the group," the Loughborough University research reported. "A good way of joining the circle is to position yourself in direct line of sight of the people who you want to interact with. They are then likely to realign the circle and welcome you in."

4. Break the ice with universal questions.

"Hello" and "my name is" often are followed by long, awkward pauses. A better way to start a conversation with strangers is by asking them questions, suggest Stokoe and Hamann, who recommend universal questions to which everyone has an answer, like, "Where are you from?"

"The one thing that all delegates have in common is coming from an organization and a place, so start there," the study advised.

5. Make graceful exits.

How you exit conversations at networking events can be just as important as how you enter them, according to Stokoe and Hamann.

"One advantage of not knowing people at a conference is that you can invent a reason to leave a conversation and they'll be none the wiser," Loughborough University reported. "But the researchers observed that good exits are built from questions that imply the end of the conversation by pointing to future actions, such as, 'Do you know where the next session is?'"

Finally, remember that networking isn't supposed to yield meaningful relationships; instead, it's supposed to plant seeds from which meaningful relationships can grow.

"There is an overwhelming amount of information online about how to network, but it isn't always the best advice," concluded Stokoe, who is a professor of social interaction at Loughborough University. "The goal of networking is to have a friction-free, seamless, productive conversation that leaves your recipient(s) with a good and memorable first impression and a basis for future interaction."