Start a Conversation at a Networking Event

How to start a networking conversation
Those conversations looks great, but how do I start a conversation?

I was at a networking event last night, and it came up that I had written a book on networking. “OK,” the person I was speaking to said, “then I have a question for you. For someone like me who hates networking events, how do I start a conversation at a networking event?”

This is a very common question, and it is also very reasonable that anyone who would be asking it would hate networking events. They are all about conversations, and if you aren’t comfortable starting them, then it will be a very awkward time.

So, for all you out there who have this same question, here’s the secret.

You’re all there for the same reason

When you’re at a networking event, there are all kinds of people. There are hungry salespeople looking for prospects. Bewildered entrepreneurs are there seeking mentors. Bankers are there because the bank pays for their admission, and more.

But all these people have one thing in common. They are all there to network. That’s why they call it a networking event. The key to networking is making connections, which requires meeting people.

In other words, everyone in that room is there to meet people, and you’re a person, so that’s a good start.

This is not like a middle school dance where you might approach someone and get a snotty reply of “why are you talking to me?” Everyone in that room needs something, and there’s every chance that you have it.

How to start a conversation

So now you are approaching someone to have a conversation. How should it start? “What do you do?” seems pretty cliche. It actually works alright as an icebreaker just to get some conversation going, but it won’t get you to a really rich networking conversation.

How about this instead?

Who is your ideal referral?


What connection would be most valuable to you?

What these two questions have in common is that you are asking how you can serve them. Everyone you ever meet is eternally interested in themselves and what they need. This is entirely fair because you are eternally interested in yourself and what you need.

If you want to make a good impression on someone and start on the right foot, offer to help with that which they care about most: themselves and their problems.

Once they share with you what they are seeking, take it as a challenge to provide them resources. The average person knows 250 people. Even if you are not “well connected,” you have friends, high school buddies, neighbors, coworkers, and more to draw from.

It is amazingly common that I will find that someone has a need which can be addressed by someone else I just met at the same event. How easy is it to say “Oh, I just met someone who can help you. Come with me.”

Even if you are not so lucky, there’s probably someone you can connect them to.

And if you come up completely empty, email me. Maybe I know someone who can help.

Need more networking event tips? Check out my article on 5 Tips for Networking Events.

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Even better, Michael Whitehouse is available to speak to your organization to share this and many other great tips on building powerful, profitable networks. Contact us for information.

5 Tips for Networking Events

Networking Event Tips
A networking event is a great opportunity, but can be overwhelming if you don’t know what to expect.

Business after hours networking events can be a great opportunity to meet new people, develop relationships, find clients, and build your business. A networking event can also be terrifying for someone coming for the first time who doesn’t know what to do.

The overarching goal of attending any networking event is to make connections that can be of benefit to both you and the person you are connecting with.

Here are 5 quick do’s and don’ts of making great connections at networking events.

1. At networking events, they don’t all know each other

You walk into the networking event, get your name tag, and look around the room. Everyone is already talking. They must already know each other. You’re the outsider looking in. Right?

Probably not.

As I discuss in my book, The Guy Who Knows a Guy, there are two kinds of people who get into long conversations.

The first is people who came with people they already know. Most often such people are coming on their employer’s dime. They are just as nervous as you are, but they have friends and coworkers with them. The problem is that talking to their friends and coworkers is doing nothing for them or their employer, and they know it.

In this case, you are doing them a favor to approach and introduce yourself because you are doing the hard part of breaking the ice. They will then be able to report back to the boss on the great connection they made, you.

The other cause of a long conversation is two people meeting for the first time. This is what they are here for, and it’s what you are here for as well. You can drift over to their conversation, and you’ll hear them going through all the getting to know you background. If they are polite, they’ll draw you into the conversation. If not, you can just listen attentively, and, should an opportunity arise, you can join the conversation.

What about people who really do know each other but didn’t come together? They usually talk for a minute or two. “Hi, Bob, how’s business?” “Oh, it’s great, how’s the family?” “Good.” “Ok, talk to you later.”

2. Get business cards, don’t give business cards

Your goal in attending networking events is to connect with people. Handing someone a business card is not connecting. Getting a business card is not connecting either, but it gives you the opportunity to follow up, and that is connecting.

The common newbie mistake is to shove business cards into as many hands as possible thinking that one will get lucky. All that happens in that case is that those hands will drop those business cards into lucky trash barrels.

Be sure to ask for the business card of anyone you are interested in connecting with, but only give them your card if it is requested.

Follow up as soon as possible. It’s not a date. You don’t have to worry about appearing too interested. Following up the next day feels attentive and polite.

You can follow up by phone, email, post card or any other way you like. There’s different theories as to what follow up method is best, but any method is better than none.

3. Give value, don’t take value

Everyone at a networking event is there to gain value in one way or another. Most everyone has something to sell, and they would rather tell you about what they have than listen to what you have.

So let them. Your job is not to hunt prospects. Your job is to make connections, and the best way to make connections is to find out what the other person needs and figure out a way to help fill that need.

Ask people you meet what problems they are trying to solve. Then see what resources you might have to solve them with. A person whose problem you are helping solve is much more interested in you and your business.

After you ask how you can help them, they should ask how they can help you. Whether they will or not depends mostly on their level of manners, but even if they do not, the good things you do have a way of coming back to you.

4. Mingle, don’t cling

Five minutes is about how long you should spend in any conversation at a networking event. You should also get physical exercise for at least 30 minutes every day.

No one should be standing around with a stopwatch at networking events, but the five minute rule is more there to keep you focused on the fact that you are looking to connect with as many people as possible. In the follow up, you can make a meeting to sit down for an hour over coffee or lunch and really get to know each other.

Five minutes is long enough to arouse curiosity. Fifteen minutes is long enough for them to decide that they know all they need to know about you. Meet briefly. Find a common interest. Set a follow up. Connect with someone else, and allow them to do the same.

5. Sip, don’t guzzle

Almost every afterhours networking event has an open bar. People feel more open to meeting new people and going outside their comfort zone when they have a drink or two.

Make sure it’s just a drink or two. Know your limits. No one wants to connect with a drunk. Loosening up a little is good. Loosening up too much makes a bad impression.

While you are meeting these people for the first time, it’s not the last time you’ll interact with them, so keep your wits about you and make a good impression.

Want to learn more about networking events. Get a copy of The Guy Who Knows a Guy. You can also hire Michael Whitehouse, the guy who knows a guy himself, to speak to your organization. Contact us for more information.