Effortless Networking: Initiating Conversations with "Strangers"

Sri Dasgupta

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What makes you want to talk to anyone?

For instance, I'm sure you've attended a wedding or friend's birthday party, where there are many people you don't know. What do you typically do at these events? Do you talk to anyone you don't know? And if so, how do you choose whom to talk to and what to say to them?

I usually start by talking to the person sitting or standing next to me. And I usually ask about how they know the host of party. It's the easiest starting point for me! And then my curiosity takes over and gets the conversation flowing.

Other people may be drawn to talking with “strangers" because something about the other person catches their attention. For instance, something that the other person is wearing (unusual jewelry, funky tie, beautiful shoes), or something that they overheard this person saying (about where they live, how bad the traffic was that evening, how mischievious their dog or cat was that morning), etc.

What about you?

I ask, because in the business context it's not so different.

Common things that get conversations started at business mixers are name badges. You may be intrigued by the title on a name badge and want to ask what such a job might entail. You may want to talk to a person because they work at a company that is of interest to you for some reason.

In fact, I met one of my long-time associates and friends that way. She saw my name badge and asked if I worked at SRI. I said “No, that's my name - it's Sri. " We had a good laugh and started talking. As we talked, I realized I'd seen her on the news on TV a few weeks before. So our conversation moved to that topic. By the time we ended our conversation, we both agreed that we should meet later to brainstorm about possible collaborations.

My point is this: people approach and talk with “strangers" quite naturally when something about the other person catches their interest.

Some common tips for “conversation starters" in the business context are, asking about:

  • Primary concerns about the other person's business
  • Problems they want solved
  • What unmet business needs they may have
  • Areas where the solutions you provide may overlap with their needs

You may have already heard of these. But as I mentioned last time, before you can effectively use any tip or strategy, you must be clear about whether it fits your needs. In other words, would the information you get from using any of these “conversation starters" be of interest and use to you?

So the question for you is this: what is of interest to you? What (if anything) makes you curious about all the “strangers" in a room, when you attend a networking event?

(By the way, if you find that nothing interests you or makes you curious, then you might ask yourself why you chose to attend that event. )

Once you've identified that, you can let your curiosity guide you. You can start looking and listening for things that are of interest to you in other people, as you move through the room. And when you find these people, see how it feels to start a conversation with them. I bet it will be much easier!

And when you do find someone with whom you truly connect, be sure to get their contact information. Because these are the people you must follow up with. The rest - well, it's up to you what you do with the rest. . .

Now, if you're still uncomfortable approaching someone you know you want to talk to, and even know what you want to talk to them about, there's another unresolved issue hiding somewhere. But that's a topic for another day!

(c) Copyright 2006, Srirupa Dasgupta

Sri Dasgupta helps business professionals get better results from their business networking efforts through focused and relevant conversations. She is the author of the Effortless Networking , and writes regular articles offering business networking tips and related resources.


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