A question I get asked a lot at my business development courses is this: “When I go to networking events, how do I approach and talk to someone I don’t know?”
MAJOR CLUE: “Judge a man by his questions rather than his answers.” — Voltaire said that.
Good questions are tremendously important. They are far more than just a means of getting information. They are a means of engaging and connecting with people in a more meaningful way. They’re a means of building trust. They are a means of making you look very smart and very different from your rivals. And they are a means of advancing relationships ― relationships that can lead to business, referrals and other riches.
You can get all of that done by asking the right kind of questions. Powerful stuff!
Back to that question or a common variation of it, “When I go to networking events, how do I approach someone I don’t know and what are some good questions I can ask them?”
Note that the following is specific to going up to and engaging new people in a business networking environment.
After approaching someone and finding out their name…
Hold it a sec. Let’s back up a bit.
When I say ‘someone’, I mean someone standing alone, rather someone standing in a group of three or more. You see, people standing alone will be happy to talk to you and you don’t have to butt in and interrupt a conversation.
I usually steer clear of ‘pairs’ as well. Why? Because in most cases three’s a crowd. Two people having a ‘deep and meaningful’ usually won’t thank you for interrupting them.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t go up to people in groups of two or three or more. I’m just saying that they are more difficult to approach.
So, here’s the way I approach someone on their own.
From a distance, I catch the person’s eye and hit ‘em with a friendly smile. Then I saunter up to them and say, “Hello. How’s your day going?” That’s my go-to opener in any situation and it never fails.
Depending on the circumstances, here are some other openers I use:
- “Hey. How are you. How you doing?”
- “Hi there. How’s it going tonight?”
- “Hi. Are you enjoying yourself?” (Unless they look like they’re not.)
- “Hi. My name’s Ron. Ron Gibson.” or simply “Hi. I’m Ron.”
- “Hi. Please may I join you?” or “Please may I introduce myself?”
Nothing too clever here ― and no-one has ever run away from me.
I have a strong handshake. Not too strong, but strong enough to show that I’m keen to meet the person.
See my e-book Making The Most of Your Business Networking Conversations for a host more openers to add to your repertoire.
So after I say my name and they tell me their name, I do an ice-breaker. Something like, “So where have you come from today?” or “How did you get here?” or “So what’s your connection here? How do you fit in with this group?” or “So how long have you been coming to these meetings?”
When it comes to ice-breakers, I particularly like using “What’s your connection here?” or “What’s your connection with the host?” (substitute the host’s name). It’s a good early question to get the conversation rolling. It can also throw up mutual acquaintances and interests and that gives my new contact and me something to build rapport on.
CLUE: The idea is to grab something s/he says and keep rolling with it.
As the conversation warms up a bit, I always ask people where they grew up. “Are you from around this area? Where did you grow up?” This is one of the most endearing and engaging questions to ask because everyone is willing to talk about it. It also gives you personal insight as to what type of person you’re talking to. There’s a big difference between growing up in a small country town and a big city ― or growing up in Brisbane versus Melbourne.
The next thing I want to know is how they got started in their career or in their business. “How did you come to be a chef/project manager at X (or whatever)?” “How did you get started in your business?” This is also revealing because it’s not just what they say ― it’s their tone, their passion (or lack of it).
I like to know “How’s business?” You can almost tell a person’s response by how quickly they answer you. If they have to think about it, there’s usually a problem or two. Maybe even one that you can help resolve.
Once you have information about where they grew up, how they got started in their career or business and the state of their business then you can begin to develop a meaningful and engaging dialogue that will help you click with one another.
There are many more questions you can ask when you’re meeting new people in a networking environment. The following are some of my favorites. They work like a treat. Use them. They’ll work like a treat for you too.
- “So what do you like to do for fun when you’re not working?” You can’t go wrong when asking what a person does for fun. Variation: “What are your personal interests or passions?” Whether your contact’s chosen interest (or hobby) is golf or photography, all you have to do is open the door and allow the person to talk about their interest. If you can get them talking about their one true passion ― their footy team, favorite charity or brilliant children ― you’ll forge a meaningful and memorable connection that builds trust and likeability.
- “You got kids?” It’s only natural to want to know about their kids, if you’ve got kids of your own. And it’s a great way to carry a conversation deeper?
- “What’s going well for you?” Variation: “What’s going on in your business lately? Anything new and exciting?” Invite them to talk about positive things that they’re feeling good about. They’ll like you for that!
- “So what brings you here today/tonight?” Everyone has a reason for being there. Their answer, will lead you easily into the next question to ask. It might throw up commonalities and perhaps even potential opportunities as well. Variations of this question are: “What’s your reason for being here today?” “So what’s your interest in being here?” “What are you hoping to get out of this?”
- As a follow up or an alternative to the previous question, I like to know “What would make this evening/today/this conference valuable for you?” or “Who is a good person for you to talk to here?” or “What do you hope to gain from this weekend/seminar/meeting?”
When I’m meeting people, a part of my brain is thinking what can I offer this person; what one piece of information or idea can I share with this person; what favour can I do for them; how can I help this person. I recommend that you adopt a similar mindset. This is what makes networking work for you. My motto is give a bit more than you take. I’m a giver by nature and I find that when I give more than I take I receive more than I expect.
- “What did you do today/this morning?” or “What have you got lined up for the day?” Better than “What do you do?”, these questions give the person a choice of telling you about their job or not. Whatever they tell you grab it and run with it.
Note: With all the company downsizing, rightsizing and closures happening these days, the what-do-you-do question can be downright uncomfortable for a person without a job. In addition to this, there are some people who just don’t like being asked what they do. They believe there’s a whole lot more to a person than his or her job.
Variations of “What did you do today?” are “What did you do on the weekend?” ― if it’s a Monday morning and “What are your plans for the weekend?” or “What are you looking forward to this weekend” ― if it’s a Friday afternoon.
HERE’S YOUR GOAL: Try to find commonalities with your new contact. Personal things in common or natural affinities such as you both have a passion for tennis – or your kids both play basketball in the same league – or you both went to the same university – or you both grew in a country town – or you both love dogs – or perhaps you both share the same views on life ― makes it easier to trade stories and establish a rapport. And eventually, you may finish up in a discussion about this person’s business issues or needs because a bit of trust has be established.
Of course, the exact questions you ask will depend on the circumstances and what you already know about the person.
Here are a few more questions that have always worked well for me when I’m meeting new people:
- “What are the big challenges and frustrations you see in your industry right now?” Substitute the name of their industry or sector. Notice I ask them about the challenges they see in their industry generally, rather than in their business specifically. That doesn’t cause the person to feel vulnerable or threatened. But most times they’ll answer by telling you about other own specific challenges because they are the ones they know most about. A variation of this question is: “As you think about the future of your industry, what worries you the most?”
This is an important question because it opens the door to uncovering a problem you might have the potential to help this person fix. If it’s clear that the person doesn’t have an issue that you could assist with immediately perhaps you know someone else who’d be able to help this contact, which can build trust and move your new relationship forward through offering assistance without the implication of any personal gain on your part.
- “Are you working on anything interesting right now?” Generally, people enjoy talking about their latest projects and initiatives.
- “What are the joys of being in your line of work?” (substitute the person’s occupation) Again, you’re inviting them to talk about positive things. It’s rapport building.
- “Tell me, what inspires you about your work?” or “Why are you passionate about what you do?” Their response is revealing ― it’s their tone, their mojo (or lack of it). Those who are truly passionate about ‘why’ they do what they do love responding to these questions and they’ll love you for asking. What’s more, you’ll get more of a ‘feel’ for the person you’re dealing with.
- “Do you have any big-picture goals or ambitions for your business over the next year or so?” It’s much easier for a person to talk about an ambition or a goal than a problem. Again, you might be able to help the person achieve what they want to do.
TAKEAWAY: Get to a more personal level with your new contact. Forget about yourself and your services for a short time and focus instead on asking good questions and listening ― listening with the intent to understand. The person who shares some personal information with you may become a new best friend, referral partner or next client.
By the way, I’m not suggesting you use all these questions in the one conversation. Sometimes it takes just one or two good questions to spark a great conversation. And, as I mentioned earlier, the exact questions you do ask will depend on the circumstances and what you already know about the person.
When you use these questions, remember two things. First, don’t be afraid to use silence to your advantage. Give the person you’re talking to sufficient opportunity to think things through and respond to your question. Don’t jump in. Even if there’s five seconds, ten seconds of silence. Let them finish.
The second thing I want to say about this is. These questions are only the start. Once you get someone to open up about themselves and their business, ask follow-up questions. Questions like, “Why?” “How?” “Why is that important to you?” “Go on” “Tell me more” “What else can you tell me?” “What’s you’re thinking behind that?” These are great follow-up questions ― seedlings for better networking conversations and fodder for great relationships and building your success.
If the conversation goes well you can ask them for their business card. This sets you up for the follow-up. That might be an invitation to continue the conversation ― “let’s continue this” ― over a coffee or an offer to send them something useful that matches with what they’re looking for. Note well: this is NOT the time to try to sell them anything or ask them for anything ― it’s far too early in the relationship; you’ve only just met one another.
I hope you find this helpful. If you’d like to dig into a bit more detail just drop me an email and I’d be happy to discuss over a coffee or the phone. Whatever works best for you.