November 13, 2008

It takes two to make a conversation

I noticed something interesting at the networking "mega mixer" the other day. It seems that a lot of people don't know how to (or don't care to) carry on a conversation. Several times I was introduced by a colleague to someone who then just stood there and stared into space.

I find myself repeatedly in this situation with strangers at networking events. They don't ask questions, they give skimpy answers to mine, and I end up having to do all the work.

Two important things to remember about a networking event:

1. You're there to meet people.
2. It's okay to keep moving.

If someone doesn't want to talk to me for some reason, I'm not offended if they move on. But if they're going to stand there with me, they need to do some of the work. Here's how to carry on a conversation with someone you've just met.

Plan some things to talk about in advance

Easy topics are politics and religion; after all, everyone has an opinion! Just kidding.

To get past that first hump immediately after the introduction, think of general questions, work-related as well as personal, that would work for anyone. Try to avoid questions with a yes or no answer, but in a pinch, do what you have to do to get the conversation going.

For example:

The event:
"Who do you know here?" "Have you attended this event before?" "Isn't this a beautiful location?"

The weather: "I can't believe how warm it is today when it was freezing yesterday."

Background: "How long have you lived in Santa Barbara?" "What brought you here?"

Business: "Do you subscribe to any good business blogs or newsletters?" "What other networking events do you go to?"

Hobbies: "Kent tells me that you collect Star Wars memorabilia; how did you get started?"

A compliment: "I love your necklace; it's so unique. Who made it?"

As I stood there in hot pink the other night, one of four people in the room wearing a color besides black or gray, my conversation starter came to me: "Did you know the dress code was all black? Nobody called me."

Keep the conversation going

Easier said than done, I know. One way to do this is to always be thinking about how you can relate to the person. Another is to find ways to extend into related topics.

If they mention somewhere they've traveled, you can say, "I've always wanted to go there," or "I've always been afraid to go there," or "I hear they have the best pancake house in the state," or "My mother lived there for ten years; maybe you know her."

If they mention their business, you can ask, "How did you get into that line of work?" or "Do you have any employees?" or "What's your busiest time of year?"

What's the logical extension of the topic? How can you relate it back to your own experience? Shared experience is a great way to keep a conversation going.

Think of resources to share

While talking to someone new, I'm constantly thinking of resources for the other person. Do I know someone in a similar field that they might want to meet? Is there a book or blog I've read that might benefit them? Is there a restaurant I've been to that they might like? Mentioning these resources often takes the conversation in a new and interesting direction, and I get the opportunity to be helpful at the same time.

You might meet a lot of people at an event, but if you don't show interest in the people you're talking to, you won't reap any benefits of those new relationships. In fact, if you don't make any effort to get to know people, there won't be any relationships to cultivate. It's not enough to show up and hand out business cards.

The more effort you make, and the more you focus on giving, sharing and being a partner in conversation, the easier networking becomes.

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