They say that conversation is a dying art, and in this age of text messages and social media I’m inclined to agree with them. Having said that, you can’t deny that conversing electronically is still conversing and entire relationships are forged and finished from a keypad. Regardless of how you prefer to talk to people, I’m sure you recognise the notion that when we start a conversation, you never know where it could lead us; to a lifelong friendship perhaps, a partner, a job….
In fact a whopping 70% of jobs are filled thanks the old, “such and such’s brother” knows someone who has an aunt who’s next door neighbour is looking for secretarial work”, rather than a random stranger applying to a job advert – that’s an example of the power of where a conversation might lead you. Which brings us nicely onto a subject that really is the epitome of the ‘You Never Know Where It Might Lead’ philosophy.
Networking is an essential and valuable resource when it comes to business. It’s a way to meet and get to know people who can assist you in your business – either through potentially becoming a client or passing your details on to others who are looking for the product or service you provide – and whom you can assist in the same way in return. Networking is great for building new long-term relationships and for building a good reputation in your field. Some of the other benefits include getting new ideas and a fresh perspective, building your confidence and getting career advice and support.
The idea is to attend a networking meeting with some conversation points in mind – and not necessarily about work – but anything to get the conversation flowing and to connect with new people, because you never know where it could lead! Striking up a conversation with a stranger isn’t always easy, especially if you don’t exude confidence and are a bit of an introvert. So, how do you overcome this so that you can get the most out of networking?
Here’s a couple of pointers:
Smiling And Eye Contact
It sounds obvious, but the main reason that a lot of people find networking daunting is because you don’t know anyone – talking to strangers is definitely on the list of things out of most people’s comfort zone. It’s important to remember though that the whole point of attending these types of events is to meet new people – so you kind of just have to suck it up!
Your best bet in this situation is to ‘fake it till you make it’; smile at people who catch your eye and they instantly switch from ‘stranger’ to ‘potential client/business associate/colleague’ and it becomes much easier to start talking to them. Even engaging in small talk such as talking about the venue or commenting on the refreshments can lead onto you discussing your business and how you might be able to help each other. Maintaining eye contact as you talk shows that you’re interested and receptive – as well as confident; looking away when someone is talking is as much a sign of feeling nervous or uncomfortable as it is a sign of disinterest.
Another obvious one, but people normally quite like talking about themselves, so asking questions is definitely the next step after the small talk about the weather and how far they’ve travelled to get there.
It’s a good idea to ask the questions you want to be asked yourself, as generally people will end an answer with, ‘how about yourself?’ or, ‘and you?….So be sure to ask them what industry they’re in and what they’re role is. You can even probe deeper and get more specific by asking them whether they get most of their custom through word of mouth or advertising, whether or not they have staff, whether they’re busier through the week or at weekends; basically, feel free to get a bit nosey – it could end up being really mutually beneficial.
Draw On The Experience Of Others
A great example of how a conversation can lead to more than you imagined, is when you start talking to someone whose level of experience is higher than yours and it becomes a learning opportunity. Perhaps they know the answer to a business problem that you’ve been struggling to overcome, or maybe they can offer a fresh perspective that you haven’t even considered, either way, a conversation with them could lead you to the solution to your problem and a more successful and profitable business.
I’ve talked specifically about business networking there, but to some degree all interactions are a form of networking, and conversations in all situations have the potential to lead places you never even dreamed.
How many people made a lifelong friend after having a conversation with a stranger and discovering a shared interest or experience? How many have ended up married to someone they started talking to on a night out – a lot of us probably! What about the conversation with the shop manager that led to a job opportunity? The conversation with your mates that led to a banging business idea….the conversations that lead to break-ups, make-ups….the conversation on social media that led to you tracking down the sibling you’d never met…conversations that lead to personal change, life change…maybe even world change!
Every conversation you ever have has an outcome, whether big or small, but how can you steer conversation to work in your favour and take you to where you want?
It can be hard to find the right words sometimes when it comes to starting a conversation, especially if you want to give the right impression, but there are some things you can do to get things off to a good start.
- Say Hello – Introducing yourself isn’t always right in all situations, but it is an obvious way of showing someone you’re interested in meeting them
- Ask A Question – Even if you already know the answer, asking someone for information is a really good natural way to start a rapport with someone
- Do You Need Some Help? – Offering someone assistance is a good way to get someone’s trust from the get-go and makes you seem a likeable person. It also paves the way for the Law of Reciprocation; if you’ve helped them, they are likely to want to help you in return
- Get An Opinion – Asking someone for their opinion shows them that you’re interested in what they have to say and think that it holds value. It’s a great conversation starter, particularly if it’s relevant to the moment
- Share An Observation – The classic example of this of course is mentioning the weather, and it’s a common trope when taking the piss out of us Brits. But it’s definitely one of the easiest ways to get someone talking, and is broad and vague enough to be able to lead on to any conversation you like
- Talk About Shared Experiences – Perhaps you want to talk to someone, and although you don’t already know them personally, you are aware that you have a mutual acquaintance or attended the same school. Bringing up in conversation something that you have in common will makes them feel that you’re less of a stranger and makes it easier to start talking about other things
- Give Them A Compliment – Let’s face it, we’re all vain creatures to some degree, and if someone compliments our shoes, for example, we often fall over ourselves to tell them where we got them and that they were on sale – before normally paying a compliment back – and it’s often a great Segway into deeper conversation topics
What To Talk About…And What To Avoid
When it comes to friends and family you probably know what they enjoy talking about, and what subjects to avoid, but if you’re talking to someone else – a work colleague/someone you’ve only known a short amount of time/a total stranger, it’s almost impossible to know what’s ok to talk about and what isn’t.
There are some things that are generally considered ‘safe’ topics of conversation: family and pets, sports and entertainment, current affairs and work. Most people are quite happy to share information on these areas of their lives with people they don’t know too well, and it’s relatively easy to think of questions to ask in these categories. When it comes to what to avoid it’s not really rocket science (although probably avoid ‘rocket science’, unless you both happen to be rocket scientists). Avoid anything negative or controversial that might upset someone and stick to positive conversation starters. Asking anything that’s too personal or sensitive can alienate you and isn’t conducive to a good relationship or a fruitful conversation. Subjects such as what someone earns, politics and religion, gossip and controversies are generally best avoided or saved for your nearest and dearest.
While it’s true that we never really know where a conversation might lead, we can steer it where we want it to go by being open and friendly and showing an interest in the other person and what they have to say without getting too personal or intrusive. Try some of the tips I’ve touched on in this article a go and see where your conversations take you. #YouNeverKnow