I know, I know, you don’t like networking events, much less small talk. You find it lacks authenticity, and you’re uncomfortable walking into a room full of strangers (where’s the bar?), asking questions (what do I ask?), exchanging business cards (just like a casino dealer!), all for the hope of a new client or job.
Guess what? You are not alone. The vast majority of people feel just like you: intimidated and like an impostor. The thing is, most of the time, that feeling is inaccurate. Ever since you started kindergarten or daycare, you have had these kinds of conversations. In many cases, you’ve managed to successfully make friends, get further acquainted with colleagues, clients, members of your community, and even to find a soulmate.
So small talk and networking may seem trivial, but as you have witnessed firsthand, all of these conversations were essential to building relationships.
And guess what? As you have done with the people that you are now closest to, it’s possible to network with authenticity. You just have to be prepared. The more you prepare, the more confident and comfortable you’ll feel, allowing yourself to have an authentic interaction.
So, to avoid awkward silences or talking about the weather, here are some conversation starters and tips that can take the stress out of networking.
1. The usual “How are you?”
This might sound boring, but by preparing an enthusiastic response, you can open up a conversation:
“I’m just GREAT! I have just…” or I am about to…” (Fill in this blanks with one of your recent successes or upcoming initiatives.)
This initial answer can set a positive, even celebratory tone, to your conversation.
2. “How did you hear about this event?”
By asking this question, you can learn about new networks, groups on social media, sources of information, or events. You may also discover colleagues or customers that you have in common.
3. “What is it that your company does?”
Asking this gives you a chance to dive into the specifics of this new contact’s products or services. With that information you can then see if there is a professional or personal match with your own goals and values.
4. “What are your most recent initiatives?”
This can be an especially useful question if you are already aware of their company’s recent initiatives. You can then ask a more pointed question about a specific project or campaign, which gives them a chance to shine and allows you to see if there is an opportunity to collaborate.
5. “What is a typical day like for you?”
I love this question! It’s fascinating what I have learned while listening to the activities in other people’s work lives. You may discover many similarities here.
6. “What are the upcoming trends in your industry?”
This can often be a very interesting question, especially if the person you’ve met works in an entirely different industry. You can learn what’s coming up and, more importantly, how you can work together.
7. “How were your holidays?”
Obviously, this has to be adapted to the time of year (e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas, or spring break). But you can also tweak it to simply ask about a person’s weekend (past or upcoming). Asking this kind of question gives you a chance to hear about interests and hobbies, and can often reveal more personal information than simply talking about business.
To take things a step further, you can also ask about future travel plans (as in “do you have any travel plans this summer?”).
8. Offer a compliment, it always works.
“What a beautiful piece of jewellery that is! Is that a family heirloom?” You’d be surprised how effective something like this can be. Of course, your compliment should be sincere, and it should be appropriate. If you make people feel uncomfortable, it will have the opposite effect and repel instead of attract.
9. Ask about them about their accomplishments.
If you have identified people you want to connect with at an event and you know that they will be there, do your homework. Scour the web to find recent recognition or praiseworthy achievements. When you meet them, ask about how they managed their accomplishments.
It’s always nice to be congratulated, but people are often pleased to talk about the process that led to their success. As a bonus, you will probably learn some new tricks that you can put into action.
10. “How can I help you?” or “Who is your ideal client?”
I often close my meetings with one of these. Simple and straightforward, it is very effective and is THE networking business philosophy that we should all adopt.
Above all, remember this wise quote from Dale Carnegie: “You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.”
Feel the pressure coming off? Good. Relax. Prepare a few questions. Breathe and go network merrily.
About Julie Blais Comeau
Julie Blais Comeau is Chief Etiquette Officer at etiquettejulie.com. She is a bilingual professional speaker and the author of Etiquette: Confidence & Credibility. Julie empowers organizations with the skills that develop business opportunities and allow employees to shine at work. A sought-after media collaborator she has been featured on CBC, CTV, Reader’s Digest, TVA and Radio-Canada, among others.
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