How to keep the conversation flowing at a networking event

Sometimes, starting conversations at business networking events can be difficult.

You’re at a networking event, and you’re feeling a little out of your depth. And you’re talking to a complete stranger, but you’ve run out of things to say about the canapes.

You didn’t have that much to say about the canapes to start with…they’re just little biscuits with squashed-up stuff on them. Canapes do not make for the best conversation starters at a business networking event.

Why we all feel strange at a networking event

Of course, you’re feeling strange. We humans aren’t built for this kind of thing. We’ve spent our entire evolutionary history just talking to the few dozen people in our cave/village/nomadic group.

All of a sudden, there’s the industrial revolution. Everyone lives in an industrial megacity, and we have to talk to strangers at business networking events.

Here’s how to make it easy to talk to strangers, make friends and learn some interesting stuff along the way…Some ideas for great networking conversations.

1. Smile at people

Part of why you feel out of depth at these events is that you don’t know anyone. By smiling at people who catch your eye, you take them out of the stranger category and put them into the “potential friend/client/referrer/interesting person” category.

One of the biggest temptations at a networking event is to immediately go to the people that you already know and talk to them.

I’ve done that lots of times, but then I remember that the whole purpose of going to that event was to meet new people. New people who might want some business coaching or might know some other people who do.

If they ignore you or look away nervously, it’s because they’re either so nervous that they don’t know what to do when someone smiles at them, or they’re looking for someone in particular, and that person doesn’t happen to be you.

Don’t worry about that. Just move on to the next person and smile. The next person you smile at will be so glad that you did, because they’re just as nervous as you are. Time for the next step.

2. Ask people real questions

It’s tempting to keep to the very safe topics of networking conversation, such as “How’s your breakfast?” or “Do you live in Brighton?” I believe the Queen used to ask everyone, “have you come far today?” with just about every new person she met.

I’m guessing that this is because most people who met the Queen for the first time were terrified (it’s the Queen!), so she had to ask them something that they might be able to answer, even when they were frightened.

It’s not like she wants to know or that she wants a description of the traffic situation on the Eastbourne to Brighton Coast road that day.

But you’re not the Queen. You can have real networking conversations with interesting people.

Conversation starters for business networking events

The best way to have real conversations is to ask real questions of the other person.

Here are some real questions to get you started, all based on some fascinating networking conversations I’ve had at business events

“Do you get most of your customers through recommendations or online?”

This one led to a discussion about how to incentivise existing customers to make referrals in a great conversation. Because I do so much work in online marketing, it’s good for me to remember that many people still operate entirely on local recommendations and referrals. Which, of course, is probably why they’re at the business networking event

“Do you still do many of the sales meetings yourself, or is that all done by staff now?”

– When I was talking to the MD at a big company, It turned out that his main role was to keep the existing customers happy and loyal, to encourage them to spend more, and his sales staff concentrated on reaching out to potential new clients.

One top tip when you’re speaking to someone who runs a much bigger business than you at a networking event is to ask them questions about their business journey. I know that a lot of senior people are put off business events because small businesses immediately try to sell to them. Don’t be that person. Establish a warm relationship through finding out about their history, even if they are your dream client.

“Are most of the bookings at the weekends or through the week?”

– When I was talking to a hotel owner. This led to a big discussion about the different types of tourist visitors to Brighton, most of which I’d never really thought of before.

I encourage you to be quite nosey and to ask people about their businesses. People, of course, love to talk about themselves and will tell you all kinds of things about their business, the industry they’re in, and what their role in the business is. There’s so much to learn.

3. Ask people about things you’re grappling with yourself

One of the best networking conversations you can have is learning from people who are much more experienced in some aspect of business than you are. Or when they’re coming from a different perspective.

Maybe you don’t have a clue about GDPR. But you’re sat next to an online marketing person, who does know about it. Ask her about it, and she’ll be able to explain it in a way that’s understandable for human beings.

Or you’ve been considering investing in getting a little book printed up to leave with prospective clients at sales meetings, but you think that this is probably too expensive for a small business like yours. When you meet the guy from the printing company, you can ask his advice about it.

At a networking event, he’ll probably be too nice to give you the full-on sales talk but might tell you where the best place to get a limited number printed up is. Or point out that the main cost involved in this sort of thing is the design work, not the printing.

networking conversation starters

4. Don’t worry if they don’t ask about you

That’s fine. They’ll either get around to it later when they realise that they’re monopolising the situation. By that point, they’ll like you enough to listen to your elevator pitch, or they’ll end up talking about themselves all the time, but they will take your card and have a look at your website later because they’ll wonder who that lovely person they were talking to was.

Although we all go to business networking events to make new friends, we’re making a particular sort of friends. I even call them business friends. With our regular friends, we’d (rightly) be upset if they talked about themselves all the time. At a networking event, you want to encourage people to talk about themselves. This is how you learn invaluable tips and tactics about running a business. Plus, by putting in this tiny amount of emotional labour and getting people to open up, you will be the person they remember the most when they get back to their desk.

Let me know how you get on.

Some more networking tips here

Networking is a great way to build your business. If you’re in Brighton, Hove or Sussex, this is a list of networking groups.

And here are some more thoughts about how to develop your business networking skills.

Connectors – The most important people you can meet whilst you’re networking

The Joy of Business system for business networking

What to expect when you go networking

In-depth, targeted networking for your business

How to get the most out of a networking cake date

What are your networking plans for Xmas

What not to do at networking events

Julia’s Rules of Business

Here are some ways I can help you and your business:

I’m Julia Chanteray, one of the most experienced business coaches in the UK. I used to be the President of the Brighton and Hove Chamber of Commerce.

I regularly use stories and information I’ve picked up at networking events in my coaching work with clients. They say it’s invaluable because it helps them to realise that many other people have the same challenges as they do.

And check out Adventures in Products too

One of my specialist areas as a business coach has always been helping people to productise their expertise to escape the trap of trading time for money. I now spend a lot of my time running courses and programmes to help business owners to create and sell their own products.

Check out Adventures in Products



Photo credit to Simon Callaghan at SimonCallaghanPhotography, Vervate and canapes from pxhere