You’re at a social gathering or conference, you catch eyes with a new acquaintance, shake hands, introduce yourself, and then without even thinking about it, blurt out the same, boring networking question you’ve asked hundreds of times before: “So, what do you do?”
You go through the motions of answering the question yourself, pushing small talk and later leaving the conversation, not feeling any more connected to this new person.
I used to resent networking events for this very reason. All too often, the conversations I was having felt mechanical, forced, and inauthentic. I would show up late and leave early, essentially sabotaging my own efforts.
Then one day, I read a classic quote from Dale Carnegie that flipped a switch and revealed the secret to connecting with anyone. He said, “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.”
The easiest way to connect with new people is simple: Ask better questions. The idea behind it is to only bring up topics you want to discuss yourself.
When I started approaching events with this strategy in mind, I noticed several things happening. For starters, I was more confident in my ability to spark interesting conversations (which made me more comfortable, and therefore, more enjoyable to speak with). I found that more people remembered me because they appreciated the opportunity to discuss things that were new and meaningful to them, too. As a result I was able to learn more from the people I met. And finally, I found more people taking an interest in supporting my work. Needless to say, I began leaving events with real connections.
Yogi Berra is widely attributed as having said, “You can’t hit and think at the same time.” The same principle applies to networking: If you’re thinking about what to say next, you aren’t truly listening. Instead, memorize a few staple questions that’ll lead to meaningful conversations and go from there. Here are four of my favorites:
1. What Are You Most Excited About at the Moment?
This has become my “go-to” question, as it’s a casual ice breaker and any person can answer this naturally and confidently. Not to mention, it’s an easy way to discover what people care about and where their interests lie without turning a conversation into an interview.
Another bonus is that it immediately gives people an opportunity to discuss something new that they probably haven’t talked much about, keeping the conversation fresh and engaging for them, too. And, even if the topic doesn’t get you as pumped up, enthusiasm tends to be contagious—and that’s always a positive when you’re speaking to a stranger.
2. Any Big Challenges Coming Down the Line for You?
This is one of the most powerful and neglected questions out there. There’s often an unspoken pressure to be cheery and pleasant while meeting new people, to wax poetic about your job and how the hours fly by at the office. However, no matter how much someone loves what he or she does, there are challenges involved. And, elephant in the room, most everyone likes an excuse to vent. You’ll score brownie points if you’ve been in a similar situation and can offer your sympathy and advice.
Oh, and if you’re in the same field, the problem could be as simple as an overall industry change or shake-up—which could lead to an actually productive conversation about what each of your companies is doing (or not doing) to address it.
3. What’s the Next Big Thing You Have Coming Up?
This is a simple and open-ended one that enables the person you’re speaking with to talk about what matters to her in her line of work, or to share what’s new in his life—which is often more exciting (for you—and for him) than explaining what he just wrapped up at the office.
Additionally, this prompt is a natural way to find opportunities to collaborate with someone. When a person mentions an event or big project she’s working on, it becomes easier to offer your support or make introductions that might be helpful to her. This’ll extend your connection beyond the initial conversation.
Regardless of profession, everyone has something coming up, and it feels good to talk about a priority project.
4. If You Didn’t Do What You’re Doing Now—What Kind of Job Would You Have?
This is my favorite question because it enables you to get right down to the aspirational core of a person and what he or she wants to do in the world. Plus, it sets a person apart from his day job and lets you connect with him as a human and not a job title.
Not to mention that this opens the door to you talking about your dreams as well—making it possible for the other person to offer resources that wouldn’t have come up otherwise (and, obviously, vice versa). For example, sharing your consulting dreams with him could easily lead to this: “Oh, if you’re really interested in becoming a full-time marketing consultant, you should talk to my friend, Dana—she made that transition last year.”
These questions have played a big role in my own ability to network successfully. Not only that, but I have never regretted spending more time learning about others (as opposed to talking about myself). So, give these questions a try, and let me know how it turns out.
Photo of women smiling courtesy of Shutterstock.