Book Excerpt: Asking Good Questions

“The trees that are slow to grow bear the best fruit.”
~ Moliere

“Hello and a Handshake” is at the printers now. There are still a number of steps to go, but at least soon we will have the physical results of all of our efforts in the last couple of years. Can’t wait! In the meantime, here is another excerpt — this time from the chapter on conversations.

Asking Good Questions

Your goal as a great networker is always to find ways to connect with the other person. That said, you will not be successful if you’re spending all your time talking about yourself. Believe it or not, by seeking to discover more about them, they will begin to see you as the most interesting person they’ve met.

The trick is to ask open-ended, follow-up questions.  Try asking about some of these topics:

Their Occupation

Suppose in your initial efforts, you discover that they work for Filbert Brothers as a Widget Sales Representative. You can then follow up with:

  • “How did you get started?” Most people are more than happy to tell the story of their success.
  • “What sort of challenges do you see in the upcoming year?” You may discover a way you can help them right away — a great way to cement a strong relationship early.
  • “How long have you been doing that?” If they’ve been doing it for a while, then the question “How has the industry changed in the time you’ve been in it?” allows them be an expert. In fact, if anyone has been doing the same work for longer than three years, I can almost guarantee that not only have there been changes, but they will have a strong opinion about it. When a person is speaking passionately about a topic, you’re more likely to find out who they really are.
  • “What sort of exciting changes are going on in the industry right now?” is another good one for the same reason.

Start with the “boring” question about what they do. Then by simply asking good follow-up questions — ones where they can’t merely answer yes or no — you will keep the conversation going and allow them to talk about their favorite topic — themselves.

Their Interests

Remember that you are trying to make a connection to another human being and, for most of us, our job or business is not the be-all and end-all of life. Shift the focus away from work.

  • “What do you like to do when you aren’t doing accounting/running the bank/selling widgets?”  I often ask this question in one-on-one meetings over coffee, but it works just as well at the event. This is what they are about as human beings.
  • “How long have you been doing that?” or “How did you get started with that hobby?” A lot of the follow-up questions we were asking about their job or business apply here, too.
  • If they start talking about their children, be careful. You want to show interest, but not be creepy. In general, let them lead. If you need to ask follow-up questions, ask about your conversation partner’s experience, not about details of the children’s lives. “How do you fly to Japan and back with a four-year-old and an eight-year-old?” is a good example of a safe follow-up (assuming the conversation was about travel with children).

Going beyond shop talk gives them an opportunity to be a person and not just a job.  You might even find a common point of interest, which is a great way to connect. Strangers can become fast friends over a shared uncommon passion.

Their Future

The third area we can talk about is their future. Remember, we aren’t going too deep here. Try not to freak them out by asking them about their life’s goals. Assuming this is a first meeting, start small.

  • “What are your plans for the upcoming month/season?”  Whether they share personal or business information, you’ll find out about their goals and aspirations.  These may be areas in which you can lend a hand.
  • You can be more specific by asking about a particular area — especially one that might be personally interesting to you. “Do you have any fun travel plans coming up?”
  • You still want to be ready with the follow-up. “Really? I’ve never been to Italy. What made you choose that destination?”
  • If you want to stay focused on the professional side, you can always ask them about that. “What are some of the big projects in your business this year?” Especially as you become a better-connected networker, you may be able to introduce them to people or resources that might help them achieve those grand goals.

The Event

If you aren’t sure what you might have in common, start with the topic you know you have in common — the event you are attending.

  • If this is a recurring event, ask them, “Have you been to this event before?”
  • If they are new to the venue and you are the old hand, ask, “What are you hoping to gain from being here?” or even “Who would you like to meet?”
  • If they’re the more experienced one, ask, “What do you like about this event?” or “What have you gained from attending?” Not only will it give you information that will make your own networking more productive, but it will give them a chance to be the hero and rescue you.
  • Finally, “What other events do you attend in the area?” which you can then follow up with “Why?”At the minimum, this question can point out other events that you might want to consider for yourself.  As a bonus, it might let you know what other groups your conversation partner belongs to and even what his target market might be (which might lead you to being able to refer him at some later date).

Quick note: You don’t have to use every one of these questions on every person you meet.  For networking events, I recommend that you keep three or four of them available as conversation starters.  Any more than that and you will be monopolizing their time.  After all, they should be trying to meet people they don’t know, too.

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Greg Peters, president and founder of The Reluctant Networker, LLC, is a business networking specialist. He works with trade associations on both the local and national level to create a culture of better connections and greater opportunity. Find out more at www.TheReluctantNetworker.com or gpeters@thereluctantnetworker.com.

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