How to Be a Better Conversationalist (Part 3 of the Networking Playbook)

In Part 2, Mastering Professional Networking Events, I discussed strategies on how to initiate conversations at networking events. Hopefully many of you realized that’s only step one to what is hopefully a thriving, long-term relationship. Let’s now strategize around the rest of your first interaction. Specifically, I want to discuss how to get the conversation going and leave having made that person feel special.

How to Get the Conversation Going

Being a great conversationalist isn’t rocket science. We all have a ton of practice in this area but some people seem to be able to kickstart a discussion faster than others. So how do you do that? 

First, ditch the sales pitch. Share, don’t sell. What do I mean by that? You don’t need to push your business, beliefs, or ideologies when you’re first meeting someone. Although hopefully you present yourself positively, there is no need for showmanship. Keep the exchange light, fun, and informal in order to spark the conversation.

To start, I often utilize common questions such as “what brings you to this event” or “how do you know (the host)”. Then I’ll use these answers as jumping off points for other topics. The formula is pretty simple:

Me: “How do you know Max?”

Friend of Max: “Oh, Max and I went to high school together.”

Me: “Oh, so you grew up in St. Louis? How’d you find your way to San Diego?”

When that thread ends, I’ll shift to another topic. I suggest remembering an easy framework called FROG – Family, Recreation, Occupation, Goals. Depending on the setting, naturally one will be the most organic.

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Being engaged in the conversation and asking questions through genuine interest is important, but don’t forget to share about yourself as well. One tip when sharing is to start elementary so you don’t kill the conversation before it even gets going. If someone asks you what you do for work, be ready with an easy description so they don’t feel intimidated to ask a follow-up question. It’s the difference between “I help business owners feel safe about money” versus “I perform comprehensive risk analysis and recommend mitigation techniques dependent on findings.” The first is going to elicit a follow-up of, “How do you do that?” while with the latter, you’ll likely hear “Oh, that seems complicated/cool/neat…”

A great conversation has a volley of back and forth between participants.

How to Make Someone Feel Special

Once the conversation is flowing, you want to make the other person feel special, or better stated, make them feel important. A few foundational tips are:

  • Whenever you are talking to someone, look them in the eyes. You don’t need to hold a stare and creep them out, but the person that is talking should feel like you’re their only interest at that time.
  • Use their name. I like to use it at least three times throughout the conversation. During introductions and goodbye seems like a given, so look for another opportunity during the conversation itself. This subconsciously informs the person that you value them and also provides a good structure to help remember their name.
  • Use open and positive body language. Smile often, use agreeable gestures such as head nods, direct your shoulders and feet toward the speaker, keep your arms open versus crossed, and create an inviting environment.
  • Work toward 40% sharing, 60% listening. Of course you shouldn’t dominate the discussion, but at the same time, don’t hold back from sharing either. Ask questions out of curiosity and add your thoughts to help build the conversation.
  • Let them get excited about a topic. Most people hold back from a conversation because they believe they’re going to bore you, monopolize the conversation, or come off as bragging. I like to let someone geek out about a subject they’re passionate about or tell me all about a recent accomplishment. People don’t often get the opportunity to do this except with their partner and close friends. Let them indulge.
  • Embrace differences while building on commonalities. You won’t agree with everyone’s opinions or always get excited about their interests, but don’t let that kill the conversation. Find areas of similarity and build on those to frame a sense of relatability and connectedness.

Conclusion

The first conversation sets the tone for any relationship moving forward. With a little bit of guidance and a lot of practice, you’ll be on your way to holding conversations with even the most intimidating person you can think of (in my case, my girlfriend’s dad). Remember though, just be yourself and have some fun. You are not designed for everyone to like you but I promise you’ll find the people that you’re meant to.

This blog series is dedicated to helping you become better at connecting with new people, getting you excited about the uncomfortable, and making networking your competitive advantage. Don’t miss out on the rest of the series on networking, subscribe to my blog announcements here.

The Networking Playbook

The Importance of Networking

Mastering Professional Networking Events

Make Networking a Habit (coming soon)

Staying Connected with Your Network (coming soonish)

Networking for Job Seekers (coming after soonish)

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