When I do my customer research and talk to people about what they’re struggling with, they normally tell me something along the lines of this:
“I’d like to improve my networking skills. I’d like to know how to approach people at conferences and professional networking events confidently, but in the end I freeze and wind up looking at my phone instead.”
Does this sound familiar?
I was at an event a few years ago with my friend Manpreet, and she and I were not super sure what to do either. So we just went up to the first lady we saw and ended up talking to her for the majority of the evening. (The conversation was not interesting. If I remember rightly, she was trying to convince us to get the company that we worked for to donate to to the YMCA.)
I started to dislike the thought of networking events because I kept thinking of this one instance, and I figured that’s all there was to them. But there’s actually so much more and I’m going to share it with you here.
By the end of this post you’ll have the tools you need to approach people with certainty. You’ll know what to say and how to carry the conversation (I’ll even give you a bonus, How to get out of a conversation that’s not working!)
Social skills matter more than your actual hard skills, at least at cocktail parties or professional networking events. Why? Because people won’t know or get to see your skills in action, so your social skills are like the preview of You: if the preview sucks, they aren’t going to stick around for the whole movie.
How to start the conversation
This first one is sooo simple.
- “Hi, I’m Natalie, I don’t think we’ve met yet.” (Even if the conversation doesn’t go on for too long, even a 2 minute face-to-face interaction can make a huge difference if you need to reach out to this same person via email down the line.)
- “I’m Natalie. What brought you to this event today?” (Some good ones get started with this opener, I tell ya!)
- “How do you know <the organizer of the event>?”
- “Hey, check out that guy’s crazy socks!” (Be careful with this one. Use it only if there’s something worth pointing out that’s not offensive to anyone.)
- If you’re mingling after a training or conference, ask them: what was the most interesting thing they learned today?
How to get over the fear of starting the conversation
You know how it feels when you’re the awkward person standing there with no one to talk to. You’re about to go on your phone to curb the awkwardness and a couple of people come up to you and introduce themselves. You feel relieved that someone wants to talk to you!
Keep the following in mind: everyone is there to meet people too, right? So they really appreciate someone else taking the initiative. Get ready to feel good that you took away someone’s awkward feelings by simply starting the conversation using one of the phrases I suggested above. Try it!
How to get beyond the surface of small talk
Okay. Now, after that initial intro and the conversation opening questions,how do you keep the conversation going?
In the beginning, there can be a natural flow of questions that seem to just come normally. (You know the ones, “What do you do?”, etc.) These questions might be boring and run-of-the-mill, but they’re good to use if you’re stuck or you are actually curious about what they do.
To this day, I still ask too many questions because that’s the only way I knew how to keep a conversation going, and sometimes people don’t really like it. So instead of questions, statements of thoughtful reflection are good, too. For example:
“I wouldn’t have thought that becoming a financial analyst would lead you to a career in Marketing, that’s really interesting… “
What NOT to do
Don’t only talk about yourself, no matter how interesting you are. Remember to give lots of opportunities for the other person to speak about themselves, or else the conversation isn’t fun for them and they might be looking for an exit strategy.
Also, don’t be an obvious “taker”. We knew a guy who was like this and, because of it, he reeked of desperation. He kept asking us (his network) if we knew of any job openings. He wasn’t specific or clear about what he was looking for and so (on top of complaining about what a shambles his life was in) he would actually say, “I’ll do anything.” It started to feel really awkward because we couldn’t really help him, so we started to avoid him.
How to get out of the conversation like a pro!
I’m pretty good at this actually.
Maybe the conversation ends naturally, and you’re not sure whether you should take it to the next step or not.
It doesn’t have to be awkward. If it makes sense to exchange contact info, then do so. OR…
Super easy: “Well, it was great meeting you! Thanks for chatting, good luck with your <insert whatever here>.”
“I have some other people I need to catch up with, so I’ll catch up with you later!”
“Excuse me, I have to use the restroom.” (Leave quietly and then never come back, lol…) A guy did that to me at a bar once – not fun. But I’ve learned to use it to my advantage.
Meeting people is a process (It has a beginning, middle and end.) Follow the process and you’ll be off to the races!