What is the difference between formal and informal business networking events

I have (famously in my world) attended over 1000 business networking events of various types around the UK over the last ten years.
These events have been of varying formats, with everything from those advertised as “networking” but were just a thinly veiled opportunity for the sponsor to pitch to us, from the more organised and structured networking events which I have grown so fond of.
What people often ask me though, is what is the difference between the various networking formats, which are often broken down into “formal” and “informal” networking events. So I shall try to explain.
Informal networking events
What this description typically refers to are the type of networking events with no particular structure or format. The networking events where you simply turn up to a room full of people, and choose who you want to speak to.
These events can be terrific for gaining some new contacts and it is important to make sure that you don’t just gravitate towards the people you already know, as you’re there, of course, to expand your network and make new contacts.
Very often these do not involve you having to give a 40 or 60 second stand up introduction, but do involve having to introduce yourself to strangers!
Informal networking events are often “drop in” where you don’t have to be there for the entire duration of the meeting.
Formal networking events
The “formal” doesn’t refer to dress code and very often, the events themselves aren’t that formal in the strictest sense of the word.
The description refers to events with a structure, which usually involve a networking meeting over breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
That structure will usually involve a period of “open” networking (just like the informal networking I described above) followed by an introductions round either during or after the meal. This is where everyone gets to give a 40 or 60 second description of themselves and their business
Then the structure will depend on how this particular flavour of networking works. It might be that referrals are passed between members (as in BNI) or that the meeting moves to 121 meetings between members (as in 4Networking).
It might be something else, as different networking groups try out different formats.
Formal networking events tend to have a defined start and finish time.
How to make any event work for you
More important than the format is what you do to make the meeting work for you.
The simplest way to win at any meeting is to get yourself familiar with the meeting format in advance, and then prepare what you need accordingly.
Speak to the organisers or other attendees and make sure you are clear on the format before you attend. Then you will know exactly what to expect.
Ask them what you should bring and how you should prepare.
And then attend, enjoy, and build your network!

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