Insights + tips

The best question for small talk in networking

" If you ask boring questions, you get boring answers "

How is your ‘small talk?’. As we get used to being back in the room with real people, we’re having to navigate new ways of behaving. And many people are having to re-learn ‘the art of small talk’ People have different comfort and energy levels compared to pre-2020. It’s interesting how many people are currently saying that attending an event is ‘exhausting’ – we’ve lost the habit, perhaps, of just standing up and chatting for a while.

‘Working the room’ has always been something which takes a bit of focus and attention, but perhaps now more than ever we need to think carefully about what we give our energy and focus to. While many things have changed, however, some fundamentals remain the same – and one of those is one of my ‘golden rules’ of great networking: ‘Great networkers are interestED as well as interestING’ I’ve seen the truth of this over and over again.

Being interested, of course, means that you have to be a good listener. And here, if anywhere, is where you should apply your energy – become a better lister. Many of us have been through so much change, confusion and stress over the last two years that we really want to talk about it. And if we don’t want to talk about the past, we need to talk about a different future. Becoming a better listener really encourages people to talk, and it’s an ethical skill which brings a benefit both to you (you make better connections and find out more) and to other people (they make better connections and are more memorable).

But, counter-intuitively perhaps, great listening isn’t based on just passively receiving sounds into your gorgeous ears. It’s also based on asking better-quality questions in order to stimulate a better conversation.

We’ve all been in this networking situation. We meet someone new:

‘Hello, what’s your name?’

‘My name’s John’

‘Nice to meet you John – what do you do?’

‘I’m a brand manager for frozen vegetables’

‘Oh. Are you really?’

‘Yes. I am’.

‘I see … have you been doing that a long time?’

‘About 12 years’

‘I see …’

And so on – you’re dying inside, they’re dying inside!

If you look at these conversations carefully, you’ll notice that it’s the quality of the questions which is driving this dynamic – the questions are ‘closed’ and the questioner will only get one-word, or very short answers in response. This means that you’re constantly having to start the conversation from scratch with each new bit of information, which makes the conversation feel like hard work.

 Fundamentally, you’re not communicating – you’re just exchanging information. 

Fundamentally, you’re not communicating, you’re just exchanging information.

What can you do differently?

I think there’s a strong argument that all good questions in small talk are forms of this one:

‘What do you think about …?’ (For the removal of doubt, you don’t say ‘dot dot dot’ – you fill that bit in with something!)

This is not a script, but a way of thinking, and you can ask this kind of question in lots of different ways:

‘How would you …?’

‘How do you manage to …?’,

‘What advice would you give about …?’

‘Why do you…?’

You’ll notice a few things about these questions –

They’ve all got the word ‘you’ in them. They’re focused on the other person. They invite someone to open up and share something.

They’re all ‘open’ – they invite longer answers.

If you ask someone where they’re from, they can say ‘Southampton’ and you’ve learnt a bit of information, but you have’t got any closer to building any connection or rapport with that person.

If you ask someone ‘What do you think of Southampton?’ you’re much more likely to get a paragraph-style answer in response. And in that paragraph, you learn so much more, so quickly, and your chances of connecting meaningfully with the person are much greater.

When I run workshops on networking skills, I ask the attendees to try a quick exercise – just talk to someone you don’t know in the room for a couple of minutes. Most people find this exercise fine, but a bit stilted and awkward.

I then ask everyone to repeat the exercise, with a different person, but this time adding a more ‘interesting question’ into the conversation. I’ve done this with tens of thousands of people and over and over again people say the same thing – the second conversation was easier, more natural and relaxed, and often more memorable.

The other delightful thing about asking versions of ‘What do you think about …?’ is that it’s easy – you can put almost anything in the ‘…’.

‘What do you think about this venue?’

‘What do you think about the presentations so far today?’

‘What do you think about this carpet?’ (ok, you may not want to be quite that banal, but you get the point).

Try it in the real world and see how you get on. You’ll find that it’s rare to meet someone who says ‘I have no interest in my own opinions, and I don’t like talking about myself’!

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