Life-Saving Questions for the Awkward Networker
Move beyond, “So…what do you do?”
If networking events make you break out in hives…I feel you. You don’t have to be an introvert to panic when you’re plopped in the middle of a professional mixer. Most people would consider me a total extrovert, but even I have trouble getting into the groove at networking events. Finding commonalities in a room full of strangers is an art.
But if you’re determined to network your heart out, it’s important to take the lead. Don’t rely on others to ask questions and keep the conversation moving.
Asking “What do you do?” is an acceptable overture, but it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to continued conversation. If you don’t immediately find common ground, you might find yourself in a conversational dead end.
The fact is, networking takes a lot of energy. Sometimes I’ve forced myself to go to events, only to snack sadly on shrimp cocktail in the corner (really.) If you’re feeling ambivalent, having a plan can mean the difference between a productive networking session and a depressing one.
Here are some open-ended questions that can help you out of those inevitable networking jam. But remember – genuine curiosity is the most magnetic thing in the world. Be truly interested in others, and you’ll make new friends faster than ever.
Thoughtful questions that won’t kill the conversation:
“What’s your favorite part of your job?” – This is a great way to get a sense of someone’s values in a professional context. The person’s answer might surprise you and open up a million new questions. If your new friend isn’t super talkative, don’t forget the obvious follow-up, “Why?”
“If you didn’t have to work for money, what would you do?” – Great question, right? For some lucky few, it would be “exactly what I’m doing now!” But this question opens the door for folks to share flights of fancy. You might discover dreams of starting a nonprofit, or moving to China, or living on a fishing boat. It’s seriously great conversation fodder.
“Did you know five years ago that this is where you’d be?” – This question is awesome, because it invites someone to open up about their career trajectory. How did they get here? What would their younger self have thought about their current exploits? You might just pick up some career tips, too.
“What are you passionate about?” – If you’re getting along well with someone, this is a fantastic question that’s open-ended enough that it can shift out of a professional context. After all – a person’s values can inform their whole life.
Think about your answers to these questions ahead of time, too! They’re so good, you might find people throwing them back at you.
If you’re still nervous about holding impromptu conversations with strangers, it can help if you treat networking a bit like an interview. Spend some time thinking about industry-specific anecdotes or news that might be relevant. Just keeping a couple stories top of mind can help the conversation flow more easily – you’ll likely find natural opportunities to bring them up.
So good luck! May your next networking event be fruitful. We hope you walk away with real relationships – not just a pile of business cards.