In my Networking practice, whenever I’m working with a coaching client or a group of participants during a workshop, one particular concern comes up again and again related to Networking events: “How do I start a conversation?”
This line of concern is relevant for both people familiar to us and strangers alike. My favorite bit of advice to offer is to take an arsenal of questions with you. People are always willing to answer questions – especially good, open ended questions (i.e. not Yes/No questions) – and they really help to generate dialogue. Some sample conversation starters include:
- What brings you here?
- Tell me about your key responsibilities.
- What was the last book you read?
- What’s your favorite restaurant?
Interestingly, however, a new concern has arisen out of this advice: “What do I do if the person I’m talking to appears to be overwhelmed by my incessant question asking?”
While I still maintain that being inquisitive and curious about the person you are talking with is the key to engaging in meaningful dialogue, you certainly don’t want your contact to feel like they are the victim of an interrogation!
As such, be sure your questions lead to a conversation rather than question after question after question! A few suggestions:
- Give the person a break. Ask a few questions, but then give the person a break by offering a bit of information of your own. For example, if you ask, “Where did you last travel on vacation?” So, ask a question or two, allow the other person to respond and then, even if they don’t ask you about your vacation, offer it up!
- Pause. Your questioning does not have to be done rapid-fire style. Instead, ask your question… allow the other to answer… pause and think about what he/she said before responding either with a statement of your own or with another question.
- Bring someone else into the conversation. As wonderful and effective as a 1:1 discussion can be, sometimes people fee put on the spot. To take off the pressure, bring someone else into the conversation. If you spy someone out of the corner of your eye who you know or who appears to be alone in the crowd, say something to the person you’re talking with like, “Let’s bring Jane into our conversation,” or, as a response to the person’s answer to your question, “Oh, wow! Well, you know who knows a lot about that topic is Pete, let’s bring him into our conversation to get his thoughts….”
- Don’t transact business. Remember: A Networking event is a place to gather and visit and get to know one another and catch up – it is not the time or place to make a sales pitch, ask for a job, etc. Limit your questions to those that don’t put people on the spot. Save the sales, job-related, transaction-oriented questions for a follow up visit. In fact, your last question can be, “When can you get together?”
- Ask, “How can I help?” Don’t forget: One of the best, most sincere, easiest ways to ingratiate yourself to the person you’re talking with is to ask how you can help him/her. You’ll be surprised how people let down their guard and let you in to their inner circle!