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How to Start Conversations When Networking

Learning how to start conversations when networking has always been tough, no matter if you're an extrovert, an introvert, have a job or are looking for one. The biggest reason why is because you're dealing with people you do not know. So how do you jump-start these critical moments? Arno Markus, a career expert, tells us to think about these conversations the same way you would an in-person interview: as an action- and results-based situation.

"Just like a submitted resume is designed to trigger an interview," he says, the flow of a networking conversation depends on what questions you ask, how you ask them and when you do it. Markus and Madelyn Mackie, a San Francisco Bay Area-based resume and career professional, shared below some of their favorite ways to start conversations that can help you find a good result.

Tell a story in your conversations

Markus says describing your accomplishments or the amount of money you've made is not enough to impress people when networking. He says you have to tell a story that includes a specific example of your skills. And in order to get a person comfortable enough to pay attention to the details of such a story, you have to start modestly but directly.

"You have to tell me about a situation that you were in. And that's the hardest thing. It's what most people don't do," he says.

Focus on learning about your audience

Mackie says the best question a person can ask at the beginning of a networking conversation is still, surprisingly, "Tell me about yourself."

"Listen to their story, ask questions about their successes and current issues they may be facing," she says. In other words, pay attention to the real parts of the person's life they are sharing with you. They're doing it for a reason: to get to learn about them like a real, thoughtful person, not just another body you are making a professional transaction with.

This is what it means to make a real connection that leads to further conversations, she says, which is actually "the main goal of a job searcher during a networking event." Remember, no one gets a job offer during networking. It's a process that helps patient but determined folks.

Ask basic questions that demonstrate your focus on finding a job

"If you take the last idea to heart — paying close attention to your one-on-one conversations — then you don't have to worry too much about coming up with whiz-bang perfect questions," Mackie says. You can just have a simple conversation where basic questions can lead to in-depth connections. She recommends the following questions to always ask as appetizers.

  • Tell me your career story.
    Even the most succinct summary of your long career allows you to follow up with questions about how they moved from job to job, what they loved most about it and why, and what the biggest lessons they learned throughout were and why.
  • What do you like best about working for XYZ company?
    If you're speaking to a person who works at the company you are targeting, you can find out really quickly about the type of place it is. If they mention strong values, a fun culture, financial satisfaction and intellectual challenges, you're on the right track.
  • What are trends you are currently seeing in our industry?
    This is the type of question that can really help you set up how much you know about the industry when you can hang with your networking friend and her own industry insights.
  • What challenges do you think the industry will be facing in the future?
    This question puts your conversation partner in a flattering position, asking them to predict the future based on their own knowledge and experience. It will make them more comfortable with you and show you are always willing to learn more about what is to come.

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