How to speed date in virtual events?

It’s been one year and some months since Covid-19 took our traveling away, to quote a famous song by Sinead O’Connor. Little by little the academic world has awakened to the fact that the old days may never return – at least what comes to traveling for

It’s been one year and some months since Covid-19 took our traveling away, to quote a famous song by Sinead O’Connor. Little by little the academic world has awakened to the fact that the old days may never return – at least what comes to traveling for meetings and conferences. The pandemic will be over at some point, but other reasons, like climate change and meeting our sustainability targets, add pressure to reducing the amount of flight miles. So, it seems that what started as a temporary solution – organizing virtual events – might be here for good.

This leaves us with new challenges to solve. It’s easy to continue previous collaboration with international teams since you already know each other and might go years back. But what about renewal? What about younger scientists entering the era where they should start building their own connections? You cannot inherit everything from your seniors. There is a serious need to learn effective ways to make fruitful new connections in the numerous virtual events that we attend.

Many parties have started to host actual virtual Brokerage events and most of the virtual conferences and seminars already include networking sessions. Hand on your heart, honestly, what do you do when the networking session begins? Do you leave the meeting and keep a break? Or do you engage in active conversing with the event attendants and seek for potential new collaborators? If the answer for the latter is “Yes”, we congratulate you. That’s the way we should be doing no matter what career stage we are at.

If the idea of conversing with perfect strangers seems too awkward and makes you squirm, you are not alone. We are all new in those situations. There are, however, some tips that might make you more at ease:

  • First: stay online. Do not leave once the virtual networking part begins.
  • Solve the dilemma: Who starts the conversation? Use alphabet bravely – e.g. first name in alpha order speaks first etc.
  • You can also introduce yourself in the chat if opening the microphone just seems like too much. LinkedIn profiles and good webpages might be helpful links to share. But just sending random links in the chat, will most likely not generate anything. So be just as discrete as you would be when meeting these persons face-to-face.
  • Intros: Start off with a 60-second elevator pitch. Do the background work well. Know what you offer and mention the kinds of relationships you’re looking for. Stick to 60 seconds – you only have a limited time for the networking.
  • Be brief in your talking and answers – allow others to use talking space and share their stories and experiences too. Remember, you are most likely all experts in the field in the meeting, remember to converse – not to lecture. Tell what you are currently doing in your institution related to the theme of the event.
  • Use the opportunity to identify possible synergies or interests and explore them. E.g. can you connect faculty members etc. Be quick to exchange contact information, just as in real life conferences as some projects can have a flying start.
  • Embrace awkward moments – that’s the nature of speed dating! Anne’s best contacts were born out of laughing together at her red office lamp that made the entire virtual conference room red. Now that laughing together has ended up being two very valuable university level collaborations where people involved would probably never believe how it started up with. Quite like real-life conference dinner meetings after all, isn’t it!
  • Don’t worry if every encounter isn’t productive. Just as with real life meetings, you only need that one good partner and to find that, it might take many to meet. Also, it is a strength to be able to say no to a bad suggestion.
  • Be quick in getting back. If you met an interesting person, send a follow-up quickly. That means the same day or latest the following day. E-mail, LinkedIn message, whatever seems most natural for you. And if your counterpart manages to contact you first, be quick in responding too! Nobody wants an academic date that takes two months to write back.
  • Keep in touch with the good partners. If the time or matter isn’t right just now, after creating the contact, do the follow-up when the issue gets more topical. Anniina keeps contacting the good colleagues and partners at a regular basis whilst expanding her network with new connections.
  • Most importantly: be open-minded. You might think you already know all important people related to your topic, but the world is surprising. And what more, it seems that it is those surprising coalitions that succeed well in the funding competitions. Quick reminder! The first Horizon Europe funding calls are just behind the corner and international partners are constantly sought.

Still feels wrong and difficult? Drop a line and let’s figure it out together!