Stash your name cards, but bring your game. The next gen of networking sessions offers hackathons, soapbox shoutouts and parish-like call and response. Davelle Lee says if you’re still thinking of making awkward small talk, these may not be for you.
Enter the pious and proﬁ table world of Business Network International (BNI)
BNI conducts weekly meetings where members agree to help one another through referrals. But there’s a catch: Only one member from each profession is allowed in each chapter. In other words, if you’re a lawyer and there’s already a lawyer in the chapter, you have to ﬁnd another one. You can ﬁnd a list of all the chapter members’ occupations at www.bni.com.sg.
This is how it goes down: At 7.30am each Thursday, the local chapter called Steadfast (there are 27 others in Singapore) will begin its two-hour meeting in a movie theatre in the middle of town. Here, I see a cheery group of about 60 members, mostly entrepreneurs, business owners and representatives, being boisterous and lively – it is 7.30am. But hey, attendance is mandatory.
The president of the chapter, Victor Wong, gives a quick introduction and does a roll call. All his “camp commanders” stand up to address the crowd – we whoop and cheer for each of them.
Then this happens: Everyone does a 30-second pitch about their business and what customers they’re seeking. An image consultant tells the crowd how she can transform a client’s life through styling and grooming; a laser tag company owner extols the beneﬁts of the game for team bonding. Then later, members stand up and announce whom they have referrals for, and name the new deals they have made through referrals. More applause.
There’s an app for it, too. Members can see a tally of how many referrals each has received and given, how many deals have been made and how much the deal was worth. An outpouring of praise for BNI (“Thanks to BNI, my business boomed!”) follows each “testimony”, tinged with fervour and genuine gratitude.
Finally, visitors are invited to give a 15-second pitch (“Hi everyone, I’m a writer. Thanks for having me” only takes three). When we’re done, a lucky draw ensues.
The morning’s events leave me perplexed and overwhelmed. How is it possible to be so ﬁred up and dedicated week after week, and is it worth it? According to Steadfast member Lai Han Sam, her chapter has exchanged more than 12,000 referrals and $53 million worth of business in the last six years. So, paying it forward does seem to work for the members.
As a guest, I escaped the $1,000 joining fee with a visitor pass that cost $30. A monthly fee goes to the running of meetings and to BNI; it is, after all, a for-proﬁt international organisation. Han Sam insists that the cost further motivates members to be more active in their chapter. Though no official rule determines how many referrals you need to make, there seems to be an internalised moral code that compels each member to contribute.
Go deep with strangers at a hackathon
Win prize money for solving a problem faced by an organisation or corporation, and meet new people while you’re at it. Participation is free and no coding know-how is required.
If that sounds like a good deal, then a hackathon is for you. A simple Google search will turn up many hackathons throughout the year that are open to the public. Each event, which happens over several days, tackles a speciﬁc challenge. For example, the objective could be to design a programme to reduce rates of diabetes, or create an app to aid the delivery of government services. An average of 20 teams of four to ﬁve people compete to come up with the best solution.
While speciﬁc topics such as health care might draw people from within the ﬁeld, techies, entrepreneurs and students also form a large proportion of participants. Of course, the events are most useful if they are directly relevant to your profession. For example, if you were a nurse, you’d beneﬁt from going for a health care-related hackathon.
“We facilitate team formations to bring like-minded people and diverse skill sets together,” explains Qing Ping Lee Lim, project manager at Padang & Co, an open innovation company behind hackathons such as Leap for Good and the Workforce Singapore Hackathon. During the mixer at the start of the programme, you get to know the other participants and team up with those who have something different to bring to the table, such as programming or graphic design expertise. Everybody is friendly and enthusiastic about the challenge, so it’s easy to break the ice.
Throughout the competition, you’ll attend talks by experts and workshops with topics like basic computer languages or design thinking, while working intensely with your teammates on your proposal. “It’s a strong bonding process,” says Qing Ping. On the ﬁnal day, each team presents its ideas, and the winning idea gets a cash prize. Even if your team doesn’t win, you walk away with close allies and useful contacts for future references.
Join a Toastmasters club
Toastmasters clubs seem pretty stodgy and old hat, compounded by their more than 80-year history and adherence to rules: Be punctual, follow the agenda, and undergo regular evaluation. However, veteran (and young) toastmaster Hyder Tauﬁk, 26, tells us the system isn’t so rigid these days. “Millennials have created our own norms, we put our own spin to it.” Meetings are usually held in the relaxed atmosphere of a neighbourhood community centre.
Still, the beneﬁts of joining the longstanding organisation remain, adds Hyder, who is a performance coach by day. Young, entry-level professionals stand to gain an edge over their peers, even if they don’t need to learn publicspeaking skills. You meet a lot of top-level executives, as well as technical people such as engineers, who are there to learn how to be more effective leaders. About 50 per cent of the members belong to Gen X, and Hyder has got to know many useful contacts and potential mentors here.
Chapter meetings are standardised, though individual chapters decide their frequency. A sergeant at-arms calls the meeting to order. The president gives an opening address, then four members make prepared speeches and receive feedback from senior members. Cue polite applause. Thereafter, a 15-minute segment allows anyone at the meeting, including visitors, to volunteer to give an impromptu speech based on a topic given on the spot.
In between, there’s plenty of small talk and, yes, networking – these regular meets do build feelings of camaraderie. “There’s a sense of fellowship and community in our club,” says Hyder. “So it forms a very strong support network.” To join, register at www.toastmasters.org. Singapore has close to 200 chapters, with varying group sizes. Fees are $100-$200 a year.
Get in with the aspirational crowd at The Wedge Asia
Whether you’re passionate about climate action, social change or just want to be a part of the conscious movement, The Wedge Asia will connect you with someone who shares the same sentiments.
Each month, the marketing and events company organises a talk and panel discussion about how to improve your personal life, your environment and your business. You’ll rub shoulders with dynamic personalities like television host Anita Kapoor, and Marc Nicholson, founder of private club 1880. Many of these people would have served as panellists at past events.
For an entry fee upwards of $25, anyone can attend the events, held at different venues within the central business district, such as Straits Clan and The Working Capitol. Event information is published at https://thewedgeasia.peatix. com.
If you run a business, you could beneﬁt from promoting it at these monthly events. The organisers set up booths at the back of the room for partners to showcase their brands. For example, Korean bibimbap chain Dosirak provided dinner for all the guests on the night we attended.
Diverse professionals and experts in their ﬁelds assemble, greeting one another like old friends. The game is different with this loosely-knit bunch of dreamers and believers; they eschew small talk for genuine human connection. The result is a relaxed environment with plenty of, dare we say it, good vibes.
Amid the warm embraces and animated conversation over wine and rice bowls, we feel a little out of place. But we get our chance to know other attendees through an icebreaker activity that requires you to share about yourself with someone new. Then everyone shuffles to their seats, and a riveting panel discussion ensues.
At the end of each session, anyone is allowed to address the audience in a soapbox-style pitch. This is a chance to promote your business or services. But you’d best be on your game if you want to volunteer to do a presentation; they might be a warmer crowd, but they deﬁnitely aren’t suckers.
HOW TO ACT NATURAL (AND STILL GET WHAT YOU WANT)
When you’re not at an official networking event, it can be awkward to whip our your business cards and start dealing. Cindy Leong, personality and relationship coach from Relationship Studio, shares how to make the right contacts without appearing self-serving or manipulative.
1 Limit self-disclosure
Launching uninvited into a monologue about what you do can seem creepy. Ease into the conversation slowly, and take an interest in the other person by asking questions about them first before offering information about yourself.
2 Don’t ask for contact details right away
Again, very creepy when you’re not explicitly networking. Make sure you’ve built a rapport with the person first. Then explain why you are interested in connecting again before asking for an e-mail or number.
3 Quid pro quo
When you try to sell them something or get them to do something for you, they’ll be thinking: “What’s in it for me?” Make sure you have an answer, and a good one.
4 Catch and release Networking is supposed to be quick.
Five to 10 minutes is all the time you should take to get your message across and move on. Watch the person’s body language. If you notice them scanning the room, they’re probably looking for an exit strategy. That’s when you know to wrap things up ASAP.
TEXT DAVELLE LEE PHOTOS 123RF