Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Do you Come Here Often?" The ten best (and worst) ways to start a networking conversation

Following a recent comment on this blog, I promised to suggest some good icebreakers to start conversations at networking events.

Rather than just share my own thoughts, I thought I would poll a few of you and find out how you go about it. I asked the question on Twitter, on my Facebook page and through my newsletter. Thank you for all of the responses, with a diverse and interesting range of approaches and stories being sent in.

1 - What do you do?

One of the most common suggestions was to ask the question "What do you do?". Regular readers may know that this approach is one of my pet hates! To me, "what do you do?" is the networking equivalent of asking an attractive woman "do you come here often?" when you see her in a bar! You're not genuinely interested in the answer, it's just a way to get chatting.

In other words, it's an icebreaker, and that's fine. After all, icebreakers are what we are discussing here. However, do you really want "what do you do?" to be asked of you as an icebreaker, when the person asking isn't interested in the response? I know I don't. I want people to have a genuine interest when they ask me that, based on having got to know me and a desire to know more. However generous our spirit when we attend events, we are rarely in that position as soon as we approach people.

Let's focus on building the relationship with people first, find out who we have a rapport with and develop that before worrying about what each of us does. This approach comes from a belief that you pursue the relationship, not the sale, when networking and knowing what comes first.

2 - You had me at 'Hello'

There is a danger that we can spend too much time worrying about how to open a conversation and practising great icebreakers, overcomplicating a very simple process.

Fellow Twitter user David C Nicoll says "'Hello' works very well for me'" and often it is as straightforward as approaching someone and introducing yourself.

Newsletter subscriber John MacMillan agrees. "I've always found "Hello, I'm John McMillan" works as an introduction for me. (Remember 'The name's Bond, James Bond'?) I've had advice to make small talk first. Personally I'm bad at small talk. I guess what really matters is what YOU find comfortable."

Small talk shouldn't be too difficult if you can follow up that 'hello' with some interesting questions and build the conversation from there. As a simple technique to start a conversation, however, a simple 'hello' and introduction is hard to beat.

3 - You look like you've had enough!

Arvind Devalia commented on my Facebook page about how he likes to share his suffering! "If a person looks bored, I say something like 'You look like you have had enough too!' Good one towards the end of the event."

Although I wouldn't encourage anyone to go out to be deliberately negative (and I know Arvind wouldn't either), if someone genuinely looks fed up and you're offering to rescue them, that's certainly a good rapport builder. Make sure you turn the conversation to a positive subject quickly though, and I would also strongly suggest that you know they're not the host before approaching them!

4 - People don't network for solitude

It often pays to look for people who are standing on their own, after all it's unlikely that they've chosen to attend a networking event because they want their own space. Approach them and ask if you can join them, they're probably nervous about approaching strangers and you will be doing them a big favour.

There are always exceptions to prove the rule, however. Another contributor on my Facebook page, Jacey Lamerton, got an unexpected response when she tried this at one event. "I once went up to the only other lone person at an event and said: 'Hi, I'm Jacey and I don't know anyone here either.' He turned to me and said 'Oh I know everyone in the room. I just don't want to speak to anyone.'

"What a killer. What makes it even funnier (looking back) is that it was Rodney Bewes from The Likely Lads!"

5 - You look successful....

Back to Twitter responses, and an interesting one from Neville Spiers. I'm not sure if Neville's suggestion is slightly tongue in cheek when he proposes the opener of "you look hugely successful - come and talk to me!" I certainly hope so! However, he has touched on a very good approach, which has been picked up by two other respondents, and that is....

6 - Pay them a compliment

Both Elaine Hanzak and Jacey Lamerton wrote about the benefits of complimenting someone's choice of clothing or accessory. Elaine said, "From a female point of view one of the easiest ways to initiate conversation with another woman is to compliment her on an item of clothing, bag, etc (maybe not a necklace!!). It creates instant warmth and a smile."

Similarly, Jacey also finds this approach useful, particuarly as she is a style coach, so slightly sneaky!

7 - The name game

Speaker and Author Mindy Gibbbins-Klein, who used to be an Area Director for BNI, sent me her top tip for opening conversations at networking events.

"Find someone wearing a name badge and say their name out loud. "Christina, is it?" This simple approach has so many advantages. 1) They will say 'yes', which is a good way to start a conversation; 2) They will feel good because people like hearing their own name (unless you've mispronounced it, in which case they will correct you and you can try again); and 3) You probably need to say their name a few times to remember it, so you have one under your belt already!"

Dale Carnegie said 'The sweetest sound to any man is the sound of his own name'. Repeating people's names when you first meet them helps to create a warmth and, as Mindy says, makes it easier for you to remember later on.

8 - Eating out

More than one person pointed out the fact that everyone at some point gravitates towards the food or to the bar. Many conversations are struck up in those areas, as people move away from groups and are open to fresh connections.

I wouldn't suggest hanging out there all evening though, it's a sure way to break your diet and people might get the wrong impression about you!

9 - It's all we English talk about!

We Brits seem to have a reputation for talking about the weather or the traffic and I think there's a good reason for that. We know that we share them in common.

One of the main reasons I urge people not to ask 'What do you do?' is because you can't guarantee that the response will be something you can relate to. However, disastrous journey stories and discussions about the weather seem to have a knack of opening new conversations.

Speak about the journey and you can find where someone has come from and the conversation can take a range of directions from there.

Newsletter subscriber Katrina Dixon seems to be intent on creating horror journey stories for when she finally reaches her destination. "I went to the London Chambers Lunch Event yesterday and my opening concerned the venue, as I foolishly decided to drive to the Novotel Excel and couldn't find the place! With no SatNav, I almost gave up and went home!

"This morning I went to BNI and my opening was again about my journey as I discovered as I got on the tube that I had forgotten my phone!

"These openings perhaps don't reflect well on my organisational skills, but I guess I'm leaning towards a circumstantial opening about the journey/venue etc these days. They seemed to break the ice anyway."

10 - Do you come here often?

Finally, believe it or not, this is my favourite, as Tweeter Emma Fryer puts it "the old classic 'Do you come here often?'" It may not be that effective as a chat up line in bars (maybe that's why I'm single!)but it's a great question to ask at networking events.

You may not use those exact words but asking people if they are a member of the network, if they are a first time guest, who invited them or why they have come along can create a very positive conversation. You are likely to find out things in common, such as reasons for being there, people you both know, similar experiences of other networks.

After all, isn't that what you're trying to achieve? Building relationships means finding rapport and finding things in common. Asking people what they do doesn't guarantee that, but asking about something you know you have in common, such as the event you are at, will at least get you off to the right start.

From there on in, it's down to you. Once you have broken the ice carrying on with the conversation means listening carefully, asking questions and showing a genuine interest in the other person. It's good to give yourself a positive start though.


  1. Well you learn something new everyday. I had the "do you come here often" as one of the worst ways of opening a conversation. Now I see a way to make it a positive one. Thanks Andy. As always, an excellent read.

  2. Thanks for the 10 tips Andy.

    I am off to a networking / social event later this evening and I shall see how many tips I can apply - and with what level of success.

    Hopefully I won't need to say to anyone that they look bored!

    PS Where's your "Tweet This" button?!

  3. I need to look into that!

  4. A very useful collection of tips; thank you, Andy.

    Any readers who attend my Essex Business Network events in Billericay: please take note!

  5. An opening line for networking events that I have found consistently effective, and that gets people to honestly engage, is:

    "What do you enjoy doing?"

    It almost always brings a smile onto people's faces, and kicks-off conversation.