I know, I know, you don't like networking events, much less the ritual of small talk.
You are uncomfortable walking into a room full of strangers (where's the bar and where are the shrimps?), asking questions (which ones?), exchanging business cards (just like a casino dealer!), with the hope that, after a few emails and many coffees (I'm too stressed, I don't even drink it anymore!), that someday you will get a new client or contract. Frankly, you find that all this chatter and preliminaries lack authenticity.
You are not alone. The vast majority of the other attendees feel just like you about this mandatory preliminary rite -- intimidated and like an impostor.
Time and time again, for at least the past 20 years since you started kindergarten or daycare, you have had many of these kinds of conversations.
I would even add that you have managed to successfully network to make friends, get further acquainted with colleagues, clients, the members of your community and even to find a soul mate.
Many people call this courtesy of informal speech trivial. But, as you have witnessed first hand, all of these previous conversations are essential to building relationships. Without them, you would not have friends or a lover. Right?
And guess what?
As you have done with the people that you are now closest to, it is possible to network with authenticity. Networking works!
When networking works, it is genuine -- and when it is genuine, it is not an exchange of speeches or pre-canned pitches. You are not there to push or sell. You are there to discover others, their talents, to allow them to shine and to explore opportunities for a mutually beneficial relationship for you or someone else in your network.
Unlike informal social networking, the more structured business networking requires preparation. The more you prepare with relevant questions, the more confident you will be, the more comfortable and open to connect you will become. That's the goal of networking; connecting, nothing more. Who knows where the road will lead you...
Attention, this is not an interrogation!
You have two ears and one mouth, use the ratio of two to one: listen twice as much as you speak.
To avoid being stunned, beating around the bush or talking about the weather (although it has been a historically beautiful summer!), here are some conversation starters that will lead to a dialogue and not two monologues:
1. To the usual "How are you?"
Prepare an enthusiastic response making mention of what is new and exciting in your work world.
"I'm just GREAT, thank you!"
"I have just..." or I am about to..." (Fill in this blanks with one of your recent successes or upcoming initiatives.)
This initial answer sets a positive tone, even a celebratory one to your conversation.
2. "How did you hear about this event?"
You'll hear references to the other's profession, you may learn of a new network, a new group on a social media platform, new sources of information or connecting occasions. You may also discover colleagues or customers that you have in common.
3. "What are the differences between you and your competitors?"
This is where you will now hear the specifics to this new contact's products or services. It is with this information that you will validate if there is a match of missions and values, for you or someone else that you know.
4. "What are your latest achievements or most recent initiatives, for you or your employer?"
Again, this is another occasion for the other to shine and for you to find an opportunity to collaborate.
5. "What is a typical day like for you?"
I love this question! It's fascinating what I have learned while listening to the activities in other people's work lives. You may discover many similarities here.
6. "What are the upcoming trends in your industry?"
You will learn what's coming up and how you can possibly work together.
7. "What will you do for the (next holiday)?"
Whether it's the Thanksgiving long weekend, the holiday season, spring break or simply the weekend, you will see the other person's eyes light up to tell you about his favourite activities, hobbies and those that are dear to him, including his pets.
This question may also refer to a past period "How was your summer?"
8. Offer a compliment, it always works.
"What a beautiful piece of jewellery that is! Tell me about its' story. Obviously your compliment must be sincere. Otherwise, it will have the opposite effect and repel instead of attract.
9. Learn about the successes of those you seek.
If you have identified people you want to connect with at an event and you know that they will be there, do your homework. Scour the web to find recent recognitions or praise worthy achievements. When you meet them ask about the "how" of these successes.
This question also applies to guests of honour and speakers.
It is always nice to be congratulated, but even more interesting and unusual to talk about the process that lead to the kudos.
As a bonus, you will probably learn some new tricks that you can put into action.
10. "How can I help you?" "Who is your ideal client?"
I often close my meetings with one of these. Simple and straightforward, it is very effective and is THE networking business philosophy that we should all adopt. Read this previous post for details.
Above all, remember this wise quote from Dale Carnegie: "You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you."
Feel the pressure coming off? Good. Relax. Prepare a few questions. Breathe and go network merrily.
Want more tips and tricks for networking? Register for our "Cocktail Networking" webinar. Alone or with your peers you will learn tips and tricks to put into practice immediately after the webinar.
As originally published in the Huffington Post on September 23rd, 2016 © Julie Blais Comeau.