Yet we know we have to meet people we don't know to add to our set of contacts. And having a wide and deep network is a key driver of career success. Entrepreneurs especially have to constantly nourish their networks so they can get intelligence on their industry, feedback from customers, advice from experts, and support from their fellow entrepreneurs.
So you have to focus on your networking, and sometimes that means attending a large conference or other networking event.
Most people don't like those environments. They don't like approaching strangers. They feel tongue-tied. They don't like small talk. I know.
But remember that networking is a skill you can practice and get better at. Learning to handle these kinds of events is important because you can't avoid them all the time. And finding strategies to open a conversation with the right kind of small talk will give you the opportunity to delve into deeper talk. Following this path will lead you to a more genuine connection with someone new. That is the best way to build your network. It will also help you better manage large crowded events where you don't know anyone.
Memorize and use these three conversational openers. Then listen to the answers and let your curiosity guide follow up questions.
1. What brings you here tonight?
This is simple, obvious and a great warm up question. It leads to a set of additional questions. For example if they say "to build my business" you can ask about the business. If they say "to meet people in my industry" you can ask them what are the kinds of people they want to meet.
2. Where did you grow up?
This is an easy personal question that is interesting, connecting, but not particularly risky. Sometimes people are from interesting places - someone once told me "Transylvania" - you just don't hear that every day. We had a very interesting conversation about misconceptions people have about Transylvania.
Some people grow up all around the country or all around the world, and then you can ask some follow ups about that. But even if your networking event is in, say Atlanta, Georgia, and they were born and raised in Atlanta Georgia, you can find common ground. If you are also in that situation you can compare notes on what its like to have such deep roots and if either of you have a yearning to live somewhere else. If you are from somewhere else you can compare and contrast what it's like to be in a new city -- and in that case you can ask for advice and help in connecting into the community. You can talk also about sports teams or unique local foods or any other realm that helps you find common ground.
3. What is some good media you've read or listened to lately?
Most people at networking events are trying to improve themselves, so it's a good bet they've read some books or listened to some podcasts lately. People often get excited about the interesting things that they are listening to or reading, so they enjoy answering this question.
And sometimes they may share something from their hobbies or personal life so you get an insight into another dimension of the. For example, one my clients used this question at a large HVAC trade conference. He found out that the person he was talking to shared his love of home improvement and they then compared the YouTube videos they both watch. They had a great conversation and are still in touch.
A good follow up question here is "what did you learn from that?" or "why did you like it so much?" And of course be ready to share some recent great books or podcasts or movies that you've enjoyed.
Use these as conversations starters and brainstorm more of your own. You will find that with practice you can go much deeper than usual even at a large event. It's a worthwhile tool to add to your repertoire.