I’m often at functions where people are standing around chatting prior to the main event starting or even where standing around chatting is the main event. In other words it’s “networking time”! And it’s amazing how few people can network effectively.
So most people stand around chatting to the people they already know either because they are from the same company or they’ve met previously. It seems they feel safer by mixing with the known rather than venturing into the dreaded depths of the unknown.
But getting to meet new and interesting people is fun and rewarding and that’s forgetting any business that might emanate as a result. I’m not one of those people who think the prime purpose of networking is to generate business… people who do it for that reason are like moths drawn to a lamp and, if the lamp isn’t on, they rapidly fly away.
So, if you haven’t really solved the problem of being too shy to network, here are some thoughts that work for me when I’m getting around meeting people.
The secret is to get them talking and for many of us this is a daunting task. After all you just have to look at people standing around at parties afraid to talk to strangers to make you realise how tough it can be. But, if you’ve got your ears, eyes and other senses tuned in, it’s amazing what you can learn from people in a few minutes and how relaxed and comfortable they become in talking to you.
The best way to do that is to make sure that you greet them in a way that makes them feel good and then make small talk. “Small talk” occurs when people are chatting in a friendly and relaxed way about things with which they are comfortable (preferably themselves).
So, my approach is to walk up to someone. Put my hand out to shake hands and say (even if they are wearing a name tag), “Hello, my name is Winston. What’s yours?”
Now, they’ll almost invariably respond to your outstretched a hand with a reflex action and shake it and asking their name is a great question because it’s not a trick question! Even if they are several sandwiches short of a picnic they’ll know their own name and, apart from that, it’s the most important thing they own. They like the sound of it so they’ll almost always tell you.
So then it’s easy then for me to say, “It’s great to meet you Mary” and continue the conversation by asking a ‘W’ question.
Knowing these ‘W’ questions and using them are the magic icebreakers to get people talking freely and happily. The poet Rudyard Kipling called them his six honest serving men… what, why, when, how, where and who.
So you might relax them by saying “Where are you from Mary?”
Listen to their answer carefully because this is where being able to use your eyes and ears will help you pick early clues as to what will make good small talk for them.
They might respond with, “Smithtown but I had to drop the kids off at Jonesville.” Now there’s a clue… ask them about the kids. You might say, “So, how old are the kids?” and it doesn’t need me to tell you that they are probably going to spend the next few minutes telling you all about the wonders of their ankle biters.
To keep the conversation going all you need do is look and listen, nodding occasionally, and throwing in a “How come?” or a “When was that?” You can almost guarantee that, if you show enthusiasm and interest in them, it will keep them talking because they are talking about their favourite subject, the most important person in the world, themselves.
In this busy world, when we get people talking about themselves, people just lap up the attention.
One or two of the questions you ask may be about what they do or their business. Maybe you’ll see an inkling of opportunity to offer them something of interest and value in which case you can exchange business cards and start the relationship.
Now the trick is to move on without being impolite. After all there are probably a lot more equally interesting people you want to meet.
But we’ll save how to do that for another article.