If you’re job searching, you probably know the basics of making conversation at networking events. You have a few conversation starters in your back pocket. You have your elevator pitch all polished and ready to go. And you know a few questions you can ask anyone, like, “So, what’s it like working at your company?” and “What are you working on right now?”
But then what? What comes after you’ve introduced yourself and talked about the obligatory who-are-you-and-what-do-you-do topics?
Instead of reverting to generic chatter about the weather or the Red Sox, try tacking on a question to get the conversation going in a way that is productive. After all, assuming you’re looking for a job and that you’re at a networking event or career fair of some sort, you want each conversation to open doors for you.
No matter the situation, here’s what to say after the small talk.
Scenario 1: No Relevant Opportunities
It’s pretty safe to assume that most people you run into at general networking events will not have a golden ticket to your dream job. So, let’s say you learn that the person you’re speaking with isn’t in your field. That’s okay! Even someone completely unrelated to your career of choice might know other people who are more knowledgeable about your industry or who have ties with your target companies.
This means your goal is to tap into this person’s network. Try dropping into conversation that you’re really interested in learning more about, say, marketing or tech startups, and you’re coming to these events hoping to meet more people in that world. Your contact just might say, “Oh, my brother is a marketing manager…” at which point you could ask if she’d be willing to introduce the two of you for coffee and a quick chat.
Scenario 2: Possible Relevant Opportunities
Another possibility is that it isn’t really clear whether or not the person you’re talking to could potentially help you reach your goals. Maybe a guy you meet works for a really interesting company, but doesn’t really know what the hiring needs of your target area are (or what that department really even does).
Don’t waste the opportunity, though, by just trying to move on to the next person. Aside from connecting you to his network, you might also have an interesting opportunity to gain a different perspective about the company—or even general hiring tips. See what you can learn—anything from the team culture to HR’s hiring process to what the company is currently working on. You’ll seem enthusiastic (which is never bad), and maybe you’ll even find out that a particular hiring manager loves corgis and handwritten thank-you notes. Not bad to know.
Scenario 3: Definite Relevant Opportunities
Scenario 1 and 2 are certainly more likely, but if you are so lucky as to start talking to a hiring manager for an amazing position, you definitely want to make the most of it! You should always be prepared to sell your skills beyond what you have to say in your elevator pitch. Essentially, it’s never too early to start polishing a handful of stories that exemplify your skill set, your teamwork, or your ability to take initiative. As the saying goes, luck comes to those who are prepared.
A good way to segue into talking about your work is to first introduce your excitement for your industry or position and then back it up with something you’ve done. For example, “I’ve always been fascinated by the aviation industry. I know people have been skeptical of the future of airlines, but I think it’s during challenging times like these that real innovation happens. Just last summer I was an intern at Flight Group Co., and it was because of budget cuts that I really had to think outside the box on my project…”
Networking is an amazing opportunity to get you closer to your goals, so make sure you’re thinking ahead about where your conversations can lead. No matter who you have the opportunity to talk to, you can make the most of it, if you know what to focus on!
Photo of speech bubbles courtesy of Shutterstock.
Lily Zhang serves as a Manager of Graduate Student Professional Development at the MIT Media Lab where she works with a range of students from AI experts to interaction designers. When she’s not indulging in a new book or video game, she’s thinking about, talking about, or writing about careers. Follow her musings on Twitter @lzhng.More from this Author