Stop Selling, Start Asking: 9 Questions to Strike Up an Authentic Conversation with Anyone
Most of us hate networking. It’s terrifying, daunting, and challenging all at once. At the same time, it often seems like an evening of networking turns into nothing of value time and time again. So how do those who are good at networking make it into an activity that is both enjoyable (or at least less painful), and also fruitful?
The first thing most people get wrong with networking is the goal. If your goal is to strike up small talk with a busy executive, pitch your wares, and turn them into a client, you will likely land somewhere between obnoxious and completely unsuccessful. The point of networking is not to sell, it is to find common ground upon which to start building a relationship. For that to work, the relationship should be about them, not about what you are trying to sell.
Good news: to accomplish that, you can avoid both small talk, and pitching your wares, entirely. Guide the conversation in a way that gets them talking about what interests, motivates, and excites them, and look for the signs of opportunities to stay in touch and help them out.
Over time you’ll develop your own topic areas that best give you these insights about a person, but to get you started, here are 9 great topics to dig into:
1) What are the biggest growth areas in your business right now?
Everyone loves talking about the current crop of successes and what’s going well. Pay attention to what skills they are looking for, what cities they are hiring in, and what leaders they might need to bring on to their team. Introductions to key hires are always welcome in the growth areas of businesses.
2) What effect is the wave of (AI/Blockchain/Self-driving/Drones) having on your business?
Almost everyone has thought through the evolution of technology in their business, and enjoys talking about their plans for the future. Pay attention to their interests, what technology they find interesting, what experts they might want to be introduced to, or what kind of articles on industry patterns and trends might be of interest.
3) How do you keep millennials engaged in your business?
Since the time of Socrates, the older generation has loved talking about how the younger generation is just not up to the task the way their own generation was. Whether this is true or not is beside the point. Pay attention to how they are thinking about hiring and retaining talent, whether introductions to aspiring young rock-stars would be of value, or whether conversations with experts in growing company culture might be of interest.
4) What’s the big season for travel/events/conferences in your business?
Pay attention to travel destinations. Look for opportunities to connect them to interesting people in those locations the next time they are in town. Find out what non-work activities they enjoy. A connection with a great group of mountain bikers, golfers, sailors, etc. will cement a strong relationship for you very quickly.
5) Where do you find your best candidates in a tight job market?
This conversation topic will get them talking about growth, skills they are looking for, and how they use their network to source new candidates. This can often present a great opportunity for you to offer help with people from your network.
6) How do you keep yourself current in your role?
Everyone needs to be continually learning, and you can often find common ground in how they tackle this task. Pay attention to the skills they think are crucial, and what they are attempting to learn. Often connection to resources or experts in those areas can be a great way to cement an early relationship.
7) How did you get here / what was your career path up to this point?
If you are comfortable taking the conversation down a slightly more personal path, getting them to talk about their career path can give you interesting insights into industries they have worked in, skills they see as core to their success, and mentors that made an impact on them. They may be open to mentoring other people who are early in their careers.
8) How do you give back?
Giving them an opportunity to talk about what they do for the greater good can open up charities, passions, and causes that they are associated with. It can also open up an entirely new avenue for identifying connections outside of industry that might be of use to them.
9) What is your passion outside of work?
You’ll probably want to approach the topic a bit less abruptly than just throwing out that question, but if you can begin talking about sports they play, trips they are going on, family, or hobbies, you’ll be able to identify lots of great reasons to stay in touch, or ways to connect them with other people who share the same interests.
Networking is challenging, and it always will be. However, if you start with a strategy for where you might take the conversation, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy yourself, while at the same time taking the conversation along paths that will allow you to begin to build fruitful relationships over time.