This article was originally published on Forbes.com by Dawn Graham on Sept 25, 2020
If you tend to be a frequent work traveler or regular conference attendee, it’s likely you’ve seen many of these events move to an online platform in the last several months.
While something is better than nothing, Zoom conferences certainly lack the engagement and energy that comes with traveling to a different place, dining with new people, stepping out of your day-to-day routine and being focused on a particular topic for a few days while your “Out of Office” message earns you a small breather.
Perhaps you have an upcoming conference scheduled for early 2021 and you’re holding out hope that it’ll run as planned? Sadly, it’s not likely to happen.
The world has gone fully virtual in most places due to the impact of the pandemic, and it’s probable that some of those changes will be long-lasting.
While Zoom fatigue is real, we need to accept that even when life returns to “normal” (whatever that looks like), many events and meetings will continue to be virtual to a larger extent than we’d seen pre-COVID.
So, instead of resisting this new reality, why not get a jumpstart on engaging it to the fullest? Here’s how to increase your network during virtual events:
1) Embrace the change. It’s not uncommon to hear people speak about “when the pandemic is over” in a way that suggests there will be a shift back to life as it was. Although the pendulum will rebalance in some areas, others will remain on the current trajectory, and those who embrace the new reality will benefit.
- Learn to fully use the tools. With the recent boom in virtual engagement, many platforms are adding new features regularly in an effort to provide an enhanced experience. This can be daunting, but many of these features and tools are pretty user-friendly once you know they exist. Make an effort to become an expert user on at least two popular platforms so you can get the most value out of virtual meetings and conferences. At a basic level, learn how to modify your screen name for the audience. If you’re with known colleagues, your first name may be enough, but if it’s an online conference with people who don’t know you, a descriptive title or other identifier can take the place of your lanyard name tag.
- Invest in your environment. Many were able to wing it initially, and dark lighting, busy backgrounds or fuzzy images were relatively acceptable. However, now that we’ve been working from home for over six months (and will be for the foreseeable future), the bar has been raised and a shoddy virtual set-up will stand out (poorly) against a sea of professional ones. First impressions still count. If you’re able, invest $70 for a professional USB laptop camera with adjustable lighting. If finances are tight, a basic selfie-ring adds a ton of brightness for about $12 and an ironed, plain sheet can create a simple, clutter-free background. While virtual backgrounds can be fun in casual settings, at times they’ll make you appear as a bodyless entity drowning in the scenery, so use caution.
- Initiate virtual solutions. Humans have a tendency to gravitate towards habit, so while you may be most comfortable with a conference call or basic video calling, this is a perfect time to stretch beyond your comfort zone to try new tools and features. You are in good company because many people have been working on expanding their virtual skills and will be sympathetic to the challenges of transitioning to a new method of communicating. You’ll likely get helpful feedback and a patient audience. However, that patience will start to wear thin as we move into 2021. The expectations will be higher for virtual communications and delivery, so now is the time to experiment.
2) Attend fully. One of the unspoken benefits of attending conference calls or online meetings over in-person sessions is the ability to multitask. We’ve become so skilled at it now, we can even respond to messages, check social media, and watch silly cat videos while our video cameras are on without anyone being the wiser. Although there are admittedly many new distractions to working at home including family members, pets, and homeschooling, often we create our own distractions because our minds are more restless than usual during these ambiguous times. To get the greatest benefit from online conferences:
- Focus. This is harder than it sounds so notice where your distractions lie and remove them. If it’s external, close the door and hang a note explaining your call will be over at 3pm. If it’s a wandering mind, turn off your notifications, place your phone in another room, and power down any devices that tempt you to stray. Other helpful strategies include taking notes and making an effort to follow the chat box or jot down all the attendees’ names. Also, don’t plan to attend a conference when you’re in the car or otherwise engaged. While this might seem like a good use of time, if part of your goal is to build your network, you’ll miss out on key opportunities to connect over interesting slides or chat interactions.
- Prepare in advance. If you can find out who’s attending, you can research them in advance and make note of people you’d like to meet or connect with later. Look at the agenda and begin thinking about the topics that will be discussed. Plan to contribute in the chat and breakout rooms or through polls and have some questions ready for presenters or panelists. Many webinar participants take a passive role, as if they’re watching a television program. However, if you approach the session with the intention of taking an active role, you’ll get more return on your investment.
- Get involved. At a basic level, introduce yourself in the chat when joining with your name and location, and respond to questions the presenter asks. As an introvert, I realize this can feel as scary as standing up in an auditorium full of strangers, but others will notice you’re engaged. If you have the option, take on a role like timekeeper, note-taker, moderator or even panel participant or facilitator. This will expose you to just about everyone on the call, which is a great way to build your brand and network. Also, many online conferences are getting creative with virtual networking or coffee breaks where participants can mingle casually between sessions. Attend a few and you’ll meet more people.
3) Follow-up. Many of us are scheduled on back-to-back video calls now, so not only do we miss the opportunity for the informal conversations we might have had between meetings when in-person, but we barely have time to process what just happened before clicking on the next meeting link. Although the thought of taking another step may feel daunting, those who know the power of networking recognize it takes initiative, and relationships are built after the initial introduction. Here’s how to follow-up:
- Connect on LinkedIn. This is the easiest step and a great start. During the meeting, jot down the names of people you’d like to get to know better (or take a screenshot with your phone) and specifically what you found interesting about them. Then, send a personalized note asking them to join your network. Usually it’s best if this is done within 24 hours. Also, be sure to include the name of the conference or webinar where you were introduced so they recognize the shared commonality.
- Set up a 1-1. Make it a habit to select a few people to meet with individually to learn more and continue the discussion. Although not everyone will have the time, if you have a compelling invite, you may be surprised who is willing to hop on a 20-minute phone chat. Obviously, you want to make a good impression and not waste their time, so prepare an agenda, do your homework and be ready to lead the conversation.
- Consider a small discussion group. If you’re learning new material, sharing best practices or discussing strategies for the future of the industry, it’ll be tough to flesh out ideas and detailed plans in a conference or single webinar. Ask if any other participants are interested in a post-session meet-up to continue brainstorming or sharing ideas. It’s likely many are game, and they’ll be grateful you suggested it. This is a good way to meet others on a more intimate basis and continue to develop your relationship.
The keys to successful networking on a large video seminar include presenting a great first impression, showing you care by paying exquisite attention (very rare these days), and taking the initiative to follow up and continue the discussion. Most won’t do this, so you’re at a distinct advantage to stand out if you do.
While we can’t necessarily control what’s happening in the external world, those who are most likely to succeed find a way to adapt and make the best of the circumstances, no matter what obstacles are presented.