Most people will like you if you start out by showing an interest in them. Asking them about their opinions, experiences, and interests is a great starting point.
Instead of viewing networking events as a chance to push your agenda, adopt the mindset that each event is a chance to find out as much as you can about the people there.
In other words, if you want to get the most out of networking events, stop focusing on self-promotion and focus on developing new friendships.
Let’s dig in.
Two Bullet-Proof Ways to Kick Off Conversations
Over my 17-year career in events and marketing, I’ve worked in very diverse scenarios, and truthfully, I can’t remember how many events I’ve attended. However, I do remember which topics have triggered the best conversations and have created the most connections.
One thing I’ve learned is that most people don’t react well if you hit them immediately with questions you need a cushion first. From my experience, variations of the two statements listed below produce the most interest and encourage people to chat with you:
“Hey, sorry to interrupt, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve been asking everyone I meet this one question …”.
“Hi, my friend and I have been arguing about something. Would you mind working as our decision-maker?”.
Both of these mysteries are hard to leave. They immediately create intrigue, and they indicate to the person/people you are talking to that an engaging conversation is coming.
Plus, they’re a great reprieve from the standard “So, what do you do?” kind of questions.
Here are some more variations on this first method that I’ve used to maximum effect over the years.
“Hello, sorry to disturb, but over the last couple of weeks I’ve been asking everyone I meet this one question …”.
“If you could take over the stage and give a talk about anything you wanted, what would you speak about?”.
“Why was your best manager the best?”.
“What type of role would you suggest for somebody who is just beginning their career?”.
“What’s the greatest lesson you’ve gained from one of your mentors?”.
“What’s the greatest lesson you’ve gained from one of your opponents?”.
“If you could choose any new skill to learn, what would it be?”.
“What does success mean to you?”.
“What makes the most effective leader?”.
“What’s the nicest thing somebody has done for you at work?”.
“If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”.
“Do you think virtual meetings will ever be as efficient as in-person meetings?”.
“Besides getting confident at speaking in public, which other skills do you think open up the most opportunities?”.
The above questions are all work-based. Below are some more laidback questions that can help start solid discussions. Do not hesitate to make it more relaxed.
“If you didn’t need to sleep, how would you invest the additional eight hours?”.
“What superpower would you like to have?”.
“If you could choose your age forever, which would you choose? Why?”.
“If you could do it all over again, what would you study?”.
“What’s one book everyone should read? Why?”.
“Do you have a motto or a set of words you live by?”.
“If we asked the childhood you what job you wanted to do, what would you say?”.
“Most self-help books are full of shit, right?”.
“How do you relax after a long day?”.
“What’s the one place you should never go on holiday?”.
“What’s an essential quality you try to find in others?”.
“What life hack has been most effective for you?”.
Now that you’ve opened up the conversation and you’re equipped with some conversation-generating questions, let’s move to ice-breakers.
“Hello, my good friends and I have been arguing about something. Would you mind acting as our decision-maker?”.
“Which skills do you believe will be most in-demand in the next 5 years?”.
“Do you believe having strong networking skills is the key to having an effective career?”.
“Follow your dreams is a dreadful recommendation, right?”.
“Do you think working from home is as reliable as working in the office?”.
“Do you think having a gap-year should be mandatory ?”.
“Most start-ups fail because their founders are delusional about how easy it, right?”.
“Women should have at least one paid year off from work after having a baby. And men at least 6 months, like in most Nordic countries?”.
“What role will smart devices play in the next decade?”.
“Listening to audiobooks isn’t as effective as reading, is it?”.
“Do you think people can change?”.
“Do you think universities do a good job helping students become work-ready?”.
“Do you think having strong relationships with your colleagues is the key to a happy workplace?”.
“Do you think your network identifies your net worth?”.
“What’s one topic in school that isn’t being taught but definitely should be?”.
The charm of these questions is that they get individuals speaking about their opinions and experiences, which is much more attractive than talking about yourself.
When you ask someone about which qualities make an excellent leader or boss, you’ll start to see if your values line up with theirs. When you ask someone about what type of speech they’d love to give or which book they’d recommend, you’ll find out about their interests.
Not only that, however, the chances are that their answers will provide you with openings to continue the conversation in a natural way. For example, finding out whether others believe gap-years are a great idea will open the door to asking questions about where they went to school and what they studied. This allows the conversation to flow in a memorable way.
Needless to say, the above questions work well in both one-on-one and group settings.
Speaking of group settings, if you’re not comfortable being the focal point and you choose to speak to people individually, try giving the “Compliment + Guess” equation a shot.
After the group separates or the person you wish to chat to more starts walking away, approach them and say…
“Sorry to bother you, but I couldn’t help noticing how great you are with people. Are you in sales?”.
“I enjoyed the story you told back there! Are you a motivational speaker?”.
“As someone who is clearly comfortable in their own skin, are you a mentor by any chance?”.
This framing is reliable not only because the majority of people love compliments but also these questions enable you to get more information about the other person.
Speaking of guessing, the next time you meet someone, and you have the urge to resort to the old “Where are you from?” or “What do you do?” question, stop yourself and try this reframe instead: “Where are you from? No, wait, don’t tell me. Let me guess!”.
“What do you do? Actually, don’t tell me. Give me a hint, and let me guess!”.
“Growing up, my dad and I used to try to guess people’s names and we got pretty good at it. I once guessed 40 names correctly in a row. Is your name Karen?”.
Then, take a stab at their character by observing their accent, clothing, quirks, etc
Oldies but Goldies
When attending your next networking event, you might just want to go with these oldies.
“If you weren’t here this evening, what would you be doing on a typical Tuesday evening?”.
This question unlocks the potential to discuss their pastimes, interests, side-projects, and families. This makes it easy to see if you share any interests with them.
“What’s your favoured part of your job?”.
“What advice would you give the 14 year old you?”.
“What’s the best advice you were ever given?”.
“What do you get up to on the weekends?”.
“If you could launch a company today, what would it be?”.
Or If You’re Going To a New City for an Event?
“I’ve never ever been to Birmingham before. Do you have any suggestions for places off the beaten track?”.
“If you had a totally free day and £500 to spend, what would you do in this town ?”.
“This is my first time at an event like this. What are the do’s and don’t?”
And Lastly, My Go-To Conversation-Starter,
“I think we have a shared friend in …”.
Word of warning: you need to do your homework (stalking) before the event. Luckily, social media makes this easy. The majority of networking events are plastered all over Facebook and LinkedIn, which makes it simple to identify who will be there. A quick cross-reference with names will help you to see if you have any shared connections. Put in the time to confirm you share real relationships, as everybody on LinkedIn appears to “know” everybody else.
End That Conversation
A big part of leaving a strong first impression that doesn’t get much recognition is how to end a discussion.
I never start discussions by introducing myself. There is a good reason for this: most people have a difficult time remembering names, particularly when they hear a name without any context behind it.
So, rather of leading with, “Hello, my name’s xxxx,” I’ve had better leads leaving my name for the end of the conversation. For instance, “I’ve really enjoyed talking to you. I have one last question: my name’s xxx. What’s yours?”.
By exchanging names at the end of a conversation, you increase the chance of both parties remembering them. Not just that, the discussion “ender” above is ensured to get a smile, and it presents an opportunity to ask for contact information: “I had a great time getting to know you, *name*. Would you mind if we linked on LinkedIn and continued this conversation at a later date?”.
Pulling All Of It Together.
Networking events can be awful. But if you think of them as a chance to forge new relationships, you can grow to enjoy them! The bottom line is that, like anything else in life, you have to find your groove.
Remember, Your career builds one relationship at a time, not from one job to the next