When I asked professionals to share their thoughts on how to make networking conversations more meaningful, the response was overwhelming – 44 answers in just 24 hours! Through this research, I sought out advice on how to move past everyday small talk and create a deeper connection with strangers. Questions like “What do you do?”, “Where are you from?” and “How long have you been at this company?” were too generic for my purposes; I wanted tips that would enable me to form an honest bond beyond superficial chit chat.
The responses I received were mostly what one would expect and not quite the feedback I had hoped for. A great many of them suggested that research potential conversation partners in advance, ask questions to show interest, listen carefully to their replies and be fully engaged. People love having others attentive to whatever they have to say about themselves; it’s like a breath of fresh air! Not only is this advice useful for me (especially when my friends can’t stop talking!) but also shows how essential listening is as part of any meaningful dialogue—it’s always much more enjoyable conversing with someone who truly takes an interest in you.
From my encounters, having a networking discussion that feels like an interview is not only unfamiliar but discomfiting. One professional bluntly stated she uses all conversations as if they were interviews and when the topic shifts to her she redirects it back to the other individual. Who could possibly believe that this is a meaningful way of forming relationships? We are not working with robots- these are humans, each possessing their own passions and hopes. They desire to attend networking events without feeling pressured or interrogated. It seems like an impossible task but luckily there’s hope for us yet!
The selection of questions varied from logical to outlandish. Of course, funny and playful queries are essential and instrumental in creating a pleasant atmosphere. For example, Wear Your Label founder Kayley Reed asks, “How did you get into this line of work?” Steve Silberberg of Fitpacking opens with a networking joke: “So…how can you help my career?” Amanda Slavin, founder and CEO of CatalystCreativ, loves to ask people, “What did you want to be when you were eight years old?” “It allows for people to think back to who they were before they had bills to pay or pressure to be something they were told to be, and just remember who they are at their core,” she says. “It opens up a conversation in a unique way.” I believe those questions can be very effective.
Nevertheless, indiscriminately firing off questions like an interrogation is not the way to go. Just imagine how uncomfortable you would be if someone started bombarding you with these types of inquiries at a gathering: “What are your deepest passions?” “What project have you been working on and what kind of help do need from me?” “In one sentence, how would someone portray you?” or “If failure were out of the equation, what’s something that’d love to pursue?” Hold up! All I’m trying to accomplish here is get a free glass of Pinot and mingle with some new people—easy peasy!
[Related: 17 Thoughts Literally Everyone Has While Networking]
Ultimately, establishing a network isn’t just about asking the perfect inquiries to discover how you can help or be helped by someone else – that comes later. Chad Reid of Jotform has explained it well: “No one will know if you’re good at your job when they meet you at an event, but they have the opportunity to like and appreciate who you are. That’s important for successful networking.” Precisely! Just make an impression on them first then figure out other details in time. So now we should ask ourselves: How do I make people like me?
Through analyzing the 44 responses, it became evident that only two people understood the secret. In my journey to make meaningful connections – from networking and dating to simply meeting new acquaintances- I’ve found that sharing is key. Instead of firing off a long list of questions in an attempt to connect, personal stories can foster relationships by opening the conversation up for reciprocal dialogue. My most meaningful networking experiences have not been the result of bragging about individual successes, but instead a shared exploration of our struggles and doubts. Instead of artfully dodging uncomfortable questions or topics, I’ve found that being honest with someone else about my anxieties and insecurities has created genuine connections with people far more quickly than simply boasting would allow for. This vulnerability allows us to create an intimate bond as we share what’s really at hand – our uncertainties that make up who we are today.
Ita Olsen, an esteemed speech and communication expert, has conducted research that confirms this. “I do a lot of research and all the other experts’ advice I’ve read recommends asking questions. My advice is the exact opposite,” she says. “I train my clients to have an ‘arsenal of anecdotes’ at the ready in order to establish a strong, positive connection right off the bat. The anecdotes need to be short (15 to 30 seconds) and have a human or emotional element that people can relate to.” For example, one of her clients who is often asked, “How was your flight?” takes the opportunity to tell a story about a dangerous landing. It notes that when she takes the wrong route after getting off the subway, she pretends to window shop. Not only does this engage people right away–they start sharing their frightful flying stories and laughing about shared embarrassing moments–but it also builds strong relationships without having to go through awkward Q&As. According To Olsen: “Connecting with emotions such as embarrassment or fear quickly opens up conversations and eliminates any need for tedious small talk.”
“There is no better way to break the ice than to be open and honest,” agrees Bill Corbett, Jr., president of Corbett Public Relations. “The best way to do this is to tell stories that are relevant and make an impact.” Being a good storyteller does not come easy, he warns. Contrived as it may sound, it takes practice. “If you are going to invest in networking, invest the time in practicing your storytelling. Practice your listening and learn how to ask questions…this expedites the trust and relationship process. The secret is building rapport and trust.”
Corbett fondly remembers a particularly powerful memory from his time networking. One day, he encountered someone in the group whom he was familiar with but not especially close to. “I saw that he looked tired and asked,” Corbett says. “He revealed to me he was undergoing chemotherapy. This was a wow moment for me. He opened up and immediately, we made a connection. It was not one of sorrow or pity, but one of concern and ironically, empowerment. Networking for him was a way to keep some normalcy in his life.” It was a profound moment when they connected without any desire to get something out of it; instead, this special connection between them flourished. After that powerful experience, the two kept in touch and assisted each other since then. Breaking down those networking walls sealed their relationship bond and revealed an immense turning point for both of them.
Networking is a balancing act, just like any other form of communication. You don’t want to be a monologue, nor do you want to pepper someone with contrived questions. Don’t try and dominate the room but also avoid standing there silently nodding along either! What we need to keep in mind when networking is that it’s about forming real connections with people rather than trying to solve all your business problems at once. The best way of doing this? Be authentic – never pretend as if you have absolute certainty about everything. Sharing something genuine provides you with insight into the relationships that matter most. These connections will not just bring help in a job promotion or give an introduction to someone important, but they can also serve as powerful sources of learning and engagement throughout your career journey.