Networking is an inevitable and integral part of professional success. Some of us are naturals. Many of us are not. The small talk at networking events or before meetings can be perfunctory at best and anxiety-producing at worst.
Whether you attend every networking event you can or avoid them whenever humanly possible, there is room for each of us to grow. Here is some advice on on how to be a conversational class act:
The average person has seven social media accounts. In an age of increasing digital connectivity, it can be easy to think that commenting on a LinkedIn post is just as good as attending an industry luncheon, but nothing could be further from the truth.
Social networks are excellent tools to enhance our relationships, but they will never replace in-person interactions. People need personal conversations to form deep connections and forge trust. Just as you never stop developing your technical knowledge, you should be cultivating your soft skills throughout your career.
Before I offer some suggestions on quality conversation starters, it’s important to take a step back and think about the overall effect of your interactions. What are you communicating with your conversation? Do your questions and comments show that you do not really want to be there? That you’re counting the minutes until you can leave? That you are uncomfortable? That you like to be the center of attention?
Or does the way you interact with others show that you are engaging and interested in the world around you? That you carefully listen to others? That you are insightful and curious?
The most important question of all: Is the overall impression you give others positive, negative, or — even worse — forgettable?
Consider the tone and outcome of your conversations and think about ways you could make adjustments. It can be helpful to look at the examples of other people who seem naturally to put people at ease and have lively interactions. What traits or behaviors allow them to hold conversations like this?
Will you make an impression at your next conference by contributing to the conversation or will you be a wallflower who is easily overlooked? Don’t lamely reach for stale standbys like the weather. Have a stockpile of your own personal conversation starters to draw others out and facilitate thoughtful dialogue.
The best networking conversations are like morning talk shows. Morning talk shows are upbeat, directed by personable hosts who facilitate meaningful connections. They blend interesting news with personal stories. They move at a relaxed, natural pace and invite multiple perspectives into the discussion.
Central to good conversation — like a good talk show — is the art of drawing others out, learning about their strengths, and sharing insights and ideas. Here are some questions you can try as you host your next conversation:
- What was your first job?
- What failure taught you the most?
- What is the most interesting thing you have read this week?
- What project are you most excited about right now?
- How have you seen your industry change in your career? Where do you see it going?
- How have your priorities evolved over your career?
- What part of your job energizes you most?
- What do you wish people understood better about your position?
- Who is one person who helped you get where you are?
- How have you changed since starting on your career path?
- What are you looking forward to in the next year?
- What skill do you wish you had?
- What is your biggest takeaway from this event?
- How have you had to adapt in your career?
Positive impressions — even ones left during fleeting meetings — can yield substantial results in your career. You never know when you might find yourself sitting across from that person at a job interview! Make the most of every interaction by staying attuned to your attitude and outcomes and by relying on a well-stocked toolkit of meaningful conversation prompts.
Cheryl Hyatt is partner at Hyatt-Fennell Executive Search.