As I’ve mentioned in my first book, Meaningful Networks, before the conversation you need to like the person. You can practice liking them by complimenting them in your head and thinking positively about them. It could be as simple as complimenting their shoes, their sense of style, their demeanour, and just about anything. People tend to say critical and negative statements in their head, and this energy carries over into the conversation.
Be sure to prepare yourself intellectually, physically and emotionally. You can read more about this in my Power Read, Build Meaningful Networks. After we've done all the preparation, we start talking to people, but many of us get stuck after the first few minutes.
The truth is, sustaining a conversation is tougher than starting a conversation. A powerful way to keep a conversation going is to ask meaningful questions.
You need to pay attention to what others are saying and pick up on any cues they provide. Then you proceed to ask polite and insightful questions to get to know them better. You can choose from a myriad of questions. What are your priorities? Where was your recent vacation? What is your line of work? Where are you currently focused? What is your most exciting project? What kind of clients are you most interested in? This allows people to talk.
In my 20s I would practice by going online and getting questions. I looked up the Top 10 questions to ask investors, questions that help to build trust and I even looked up questions not to ask a woman which was honestly very enlightening! Don’t ask a woman for her age, whether she’s on her period, why she isn't smiling (probably because she's talking to you) and even children related questions like whether she has children or when she will have children.
It’s important that we research, read and learn from others to improve. We may not have been taught to network in school but now’s the time to learn to ask good questions. It will serve you well.
Asking questions keeps the conversation going but your conversation may still be on the surface. You can then take it to the next level.
To move to a deeper level of conversation, you can start asking others why they chose to do what they do. This would allow them to share more about their preferences, talents and other more personal thoughts. You could ask them when they got into their line of work and how their experience has been. If they are from overseas, you can ask them when and why they came to Singapore. Questions like these would move the conversation to a more personal direction while keeping it professional. Focus on allowing others to open up. If you state or ask facts, you will get short answers because they don’t know and don't trust you. They are afraid you will use facts against them. So, focus on more light-hearted and meaningful conversations.
In reality, some people may not be very forthcoming, in which case you need to help them to open up and share. How can you do that?
This will encourage them to open up too. Share your thoughts and how you feel, then proceed to throw the ball back into the court to share. As I mentioned in my first book, life is like a mirror. When you open up, it’s likely that others will mirror you and open up too.
As you open up you may start to wonder how open you can be about your networking goals. Especially at a networking event, the purpose is to network and meet a variety of people. It’s okay if you need to end the conversation with the person you are talking to because you're looking to meet someone else. You can end the conversation politely, and move on to speak with the next person; a skill which I share more about in the following chapter.
You can also be open about what you do. If you look at the start-up scene, for instance, you can see that some entrepreneurs are afraid to share their ideas for silly reasons.
I’m a huge believer in openly sharing with others what I’m working on. You don’t have to give a lot of details. But don’t be afraid to share ideas because they are not worth much until you put them to action. People can’t steal your idea because what brings your ideas to life are your models, structures and other concrete plans you’re setting in place.
So, don’t hold back on your ideas and share them with people. You may open yourself up to exciting possibilities when you share openly.
Another great way to sustain conversations would be to ask for advice. When you give others the opportunity to do so, they appreciate you for it. It’s nice to be asked for advice or recommendations; it shows that the person values your opinions. After they’ve shared their recommendations, be sure to show your appreciation for their value-add. You can also offer your help, experience or recommendation if they ask you for it as well.
Finally, the best way to sustain a conversation is to be interesting. How can you do that?
If you think you’re boring then others will likely think you’re boring too. You need to prepare interesting information about yourself so that people are able to ask you questions too. Be able to answer the very questions that you ask. You can do this by preparing your introduction and what you will share. Highlight interesting achievements both professional and personal. If you’re not sure how to start, you can read more in my first book: Meaningful Networks.
People often struggle with wrapping up conversations politely. Ending conversations is considered to be disrespectful in many cultures. In a networking event, however, it isn’t.
If the event is positioned as a networking event, you can end a prolonged conversation by saying, “it has been great meeting you, shall we continue networking and we can connect in the future.” You can then proceed to exchange name cards and follow up.
There will, of course, be people that you speak with who aren’t the kind of people you were hoping to network with. For instance, if they are an investment banker looking to meet with people in the financial sector while you are in health and wellness and are hoping to meet those in your field, you may not want to spend too much time in the conversation unless of course, you find some common points of discussion.
If you want to end the conversation, what can you do?
You can compliment them and then reach out and shake their hand or pat them on the shoulder and say, “I hope you enjoy this event. If I meet someone in the finance sector, I’ll introduce you to one another. If you meet anyone in health and wellness, please feel free to introduce me to them."
Alternatively, you can also say, “it looks like you are looking to connect with people in the finance sector. If I meet anyone you could connect with, I’ll introduce you to them. If you meet anyone in health and wellness, please feel free to introduce them to me as well." You are framing the end of the conversation by clarifying both your networking goals, while still keeping the network with each other.
You can then exchange cards and empower them to connect to you. If you don’t want to stay connected then there’s no need to exchange name cards with them.
After that, you walk to the left and don’t look back.
Don’t say you’re going to get a drink or are going to the toilet because they might follow you and you would have to come up with another reason later on to end the conversation. Know which direction to walk and do so without turning back.
Finally, the end of a conversation isn’t just in the room. It’s important that you follow up. Find a way to follow up, whether it’s to connect to them on LinkedIn or to email them. Follow up with every single person that you’ve exchanged cards with.
You may not find synergy or see potential during the first meeting. In fact, you would need to meet with someone about three times to find potential synergies and opportunities and about six times to transact comfortably.
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