Small talk can be a pain at the best of times, but when you’re trying to impress an industry professional, while gracefully sipping your glass of wine and attempting to subtly slide your previous experience into the conversation, it can be a nightmare. What do you say? How do you get the conversation going?
The number one golden rule of networking is to keep it as natural as possible. Obviously make sure you’re professional and present the best version of yourself, but approach the conversation how you would when you meet someone in a seminar or lecture. Remember that the person you’re talking to is exactly that, just another person, so keep the conversation authentic by asking them about themselves, and don’t focus on the company too much.
If you are stuck for conversation starters though, don’t panic. Asking them their star sign might be a big no-no, but we’ve got plenty of alternatives that will work a charm.
How did you hear about the event?
The perfect opening line; simple, casual and the best way to establish some common ground. The one thing you know you have in common with your counterpart is your attendance of the event itself, so comment on that, whether it be the speakers or the food, and get the conversation going.
Where are you from?
This one can work wonders, especially if they have an accent you recognise from close to somewhere you have a connection with. There’s nothing that bonds people more than being born in a certain geographical radius to each other, so if you can connect with them over something like this, you’ll get the conversation off to a flying start.
How did you get involved in [industry/company/project]?
Now it’s time to get serious; you’re here to network and that means talking about jobs and careers. The easiest way to do this is to ask them how they got involved in the industry, company or (if you’ve done your homework) the current project they’re working on. Not only will this give you an insight into how to work your way up to a position like theirs, but they’re likely to relax more when talking about something they’re comfortable with.
How do you predict the industry is going to change over the next few years?
This is the kind of question you should prepare in advance so you have your own opinions to chip in – there’s no point asking it and then just nodding aimlessly while they talk. This is the perfect chance to start a bit of debate and discussion. Once they get going, think about whether you agree with their opinion or not, and don’t be afraid suggest other ideas or points they may have missed.
What resources do you use for keeping up with industry developments?
You want to try and get as much out of the conversation as possible, so this is a perfect question to ask without sounding too demanding. You show that you’re passionate about the industry and you’re keen to learn more, while getting some handy tips that will come in useful when preparing for future interviews. Win-win.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
Keep things positive. Ask them their favourite things about their job and you’re bound to put them in a good mood. It’ll also give you a good idea about what the role entails, and whether it’s something you would be interested in.
Have you got any exciting projects coming up?
Obviously you can tailor this question to suit the particular industry and role, but finding out what project they’re working on currently, or what they’ve got coming up, is a great way for you to offer your services. See if there’s anything you can help them with – maybe you have a contact you can put them in touch with or an information resource you can guide them towards.
Do you have any funny stories from the job?
Again, judge the situation and act accordingly (a lawyer might not be impressed with a question like this, for example). But if you feel it’s appropriate, this is a great question to lighten the conversation and help secure that connection with some more memorable, relaxed chat. Contribute some of your own anecdotes that you think are appropriate, and your personality will start to show – and you’ll leave a better lasting impression as a result.
Would it be possible for me to grab your business card/email address? It would be great to find out more about [insert topic here].
It’s crunch time. To solidify the connection you want to get something tangible from them that will help you to stay in touch, like their business card or email address. This will enable you to contact them in the future – either just to thank them for their time and advice, or to ask for some further advice on a particular subject. If you don’t manage this, don’t worry though. You should easily be able to find them on LinkedIn and stay in touch that way.