Sometimes business networking conversations can be difficult.
You’re at a business networking event, and you’re feeling a little strange, a bit 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.
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.
And 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. One of the biggest temptations at a networking event is to immediately go to the people that you do 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.
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.
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.
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 asks everyone “have you come far today?” with just about every new person she meets.
I’m guessing that this is because most people who meet the Queen for the first time are terrified (she’s the Queen!) so she has to ask them something that they might be able to answer, even when they’re 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.
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 recommendation or online?”
– this one led to a discussion about how to incentivise existing customers to make referrals.
“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 of a quite 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 concentrating on reaching out to potential new clients.
“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.
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’ve 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 is the best place to get a limited number printed up. Or point out that the main cost involved in this sort of thing is the design work, not the printing.
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.
Let me know how you get on.
Some more 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.
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Photo credit to Simon Callaghan at SimonCallaghanPhotography, Vervate and canapes from pxhere