To many, networking events sound as appealing as getting teeth pulled, but that doesn’t mean they have to be so dreadful. Instead, great networking is all about having questions ready that start actual conversations, not mundane small talk.
After asking dozens of professionals their go-to networking questions, I found two important patterns.
First, the best questions are open-ended and can’t be answered with a simple yes or no; think essay questions instead of multiple choice.
Second, the key to good networking may surprise you: don’t talk just about work. If you’ve ever worked in London, or in Europe, you’ll be familiar with the belief that people represent more than their job titles and salaries. Get to know the person in front of you.
I asked some of the most successful people I know how they sharpened their networking skills. Here were the top seven responses that came up over and over again.
1) “What are your hobbies?”
“I’ve found out that colleagues’ non-work projects include woodworking, gardening, marathon training, volunteer firefighting, baking pastries and vocal lessons,” explains Brittany Meyers, a writer and editor. “I like the enthusiasm I see in people for something besides their work.”
Plus, Brittany says that knowing people’s hobbies makes it easier to remember everyone since getting faces and name tags straight is a challenge.
2) “What are you reading these days?”
“Asking what’s on someone’s nightstand or e-reader tells you more about the person you’re meeting than a LinkedIn profile or business card ever could,” notes Felicia Sullivan, marketing consultant and founder of Phoebe & Kate.
This one not only leads to more meaningful conversations, but it also makes it easier to follow up with people afterwards. “We met at that networking event” isn’t as memorable as “so glad we got to talk about our mutual love of House of Cards.”
3) “Any good travel plans coming up?”
“I was born and raised in Texas, lived for almost 15 years in California, lived in Boston [and] Mexico and traveled to Australia and Europe before landing back in Texas,” says Kat Clemons, director of community development at nonprofit Hope Village. “I love finding out that people have awesome traveling stories or are from somewhere totally different.”
You can also ask people where they grew up, but note that the question can be misinterpreted as a loaded one for minorities or immigrants since it can have an implication of “you’re not from around here.” If they volunteer it, however, feel free to dive into a conversation about it.
Everyone has an origin story, or they’re planning a trip soon, so there’s bound to be an interesting conversation without having to drop the “so, what do you do?” question right off the bat.
4) “I love that scarf! Where did you get it?”
“I find that genuinely complimenting someone on a statement piece that they are wearing immediately breaks the ice, as it makes the other person feel good and they are more open during the conversation,” explains Chanele McFarlane, founder and editor-in-chief of Do Well Dress Well.
Additionally, McFarlane notes that wearing something interesting (like an bold necklace or bright blazer) to a networking event is a great way to use appearance as a conversation-starter.
5. “Do you have a ‘wow’ project you’re involved with?”
If you want to elevate the typical “what do you do?” question, add a little nuance by letting people brag.
“It assumes [people] do have a significant project in the works and allows them to talk about whatever is at the top of their mind,” explains David Burrows, a tech entrepreneur. Who doesn’t like to show off the things they’re most proud of?
6) “What are you passionate about?”
“People are used to be asked what they do and where they work, so I’ve seen them be pleasantly startled by this question,” says Tammy Tibbetts, founder and CEO of nonprofit She’s The First. “It’s a way of showing you care about them more than who they work for.”
Asking this doesn’t have to sound like a stiff job interview question, either; working it into the conversation can be as easy as, “So if you weren’t doing [job], what would you do instead?”
7) “Have you been to [city] or [event space] before? What’s it like?”
Bonding over your physical surroundings or the general event environment makes for a much more natural conversation starter than asking what someone does. “I’ve learned a lot about people because of this approach,” says Melissa Jones,recruitment and HR specialist at the United Technologies Research Center. “It breaks up the monotony of where you work, which you’ll eventually get around to anyway.”