updated July 2021
How do you walk into a room of strangers and make new friends?
Or what about staring at your screen at a bunch of smaller windows in a Zoom call. How do you make it less awkward and actually connect with someone when you aren’t even together?
Those are questions that sneak into into our minds when we join a group of people we don’t know. And there’s no easy answer in sight.
That’s why networking events, everything from conference cocktail hours to Chamber of Commerce breakfasts to online networking lunches, fill so many of us with dread. In fact, it’s why so many of us skip them altogether.
But what if there was an easy tool that would allow you to start and build new connections easily?
There is one.
I call it The Next Question™.
Our Networking Approach is Wrong
One of our main challenges when we encounter a roomful of people isn’t a professional one, it’s a personal one. Reaching out to a new person requires a touch of vulnerability. By approaching new contacts at a networking event, we’re opening ourselves up a little.
It’s why we got nervous on the first day of school. We were worried that nobody would like us. It’s easy to have the same worry when we’re in environments with a lot of new people. That vulnerability can easily be just as nerve-wracking as an adult as when we were in grade school.
If we can find a way to make reaching out to new people less emotionally risky, it becomes a lot easier. That means that you’ll feel more comfortable going to professional events and meeting new people, instead of just hiding by the appetizer table or talking exclusively to the people you already know.
Ask the Next Question™
Many people will suggest “psyching yourself up” before going into an event. That requires a lot of energy and it isn’t always an option. A much easier way is to walk in and make it all about the people you are about to meet.
As the aphorism goes, the best way to be interesting is to get interested.
We’re going to flip the script.
When we think of networking, it’s easy to dwell on the things were looking to get: a new job, a new client, a new opportunity. But in the beginning, it is important that we establish a good foundation and rapport with our new connections.
Asking the Next Question™ allows us to do that. The tool itself is very simple, and you probably use it sometimes without knowing it. The key, here, is to make it intentional.
To ask the Next Question, we want to interrupt a normal pattern that we all fall into:
- You ask a question. (“How long have you been in the area?”)
- Your conversational partner answers it. (“Almost 5 years.”)
- You then give your answer to the same question. (“We’ve been here for 15.”)
And then you pause and stare each other awkwardly.
Instead, use their answer as the basis of the next question you can ask.
- You ask a question (“How long have you been in software?”)
- Your conversational partner answers it. (“About 15 years.”)
- You ask the Next Question (“That’s a while! What are the biggest changes you’ve seen?”)
Why the Next Question Super-Charges Your Networking
As you can see, the tool itself is very simple. It’s also something that we do naturally with people we know well or with topics that we’re really interested in.
By intentionally asking these questions of people you just met, you build rapport quickly. There are a lot of powerful benefits:
- Because you are focused on getting to know them, it takes the pressure off of you to be interesting. That should remove some of the stress and make events more fun.
- People like people who show an interest in them. By asking questions you are giving the person the gift of your attention. That has a powerful impact on others.
- You will find the commonalities and connections that you have with the other person quickly. That will create and strengthen the relationship you have with them.
- You will get to know a lot about your new friend. That makes it easier to find ways that you can help each other.
- Just about everybody has an interesting story to tell, and you will find out lots of fascinating tidbits from people.
Make Your Initial Conversations Easier
The goal here isn’t to be an interrogator. The goal is to use the Next Question™ to make your conversations more focused and impactful. It’s an easy way to establish rapport quickly when you meet someone new. As you continue the conversation, it will naturally evolve to a point where they are asking you questions as well.
Meeting a new person at an event could look like:
- “Hi, my name is David.”
- “Hi, I’m Bill.”
- “How are you enjoying the AMLA conference so far?”
- “It’s pretty good, I’ve really enjoyed some of the breakout sessions?”
- “Which breakout session has been your favorite?”
- “The one on social media management for marketing your llama farm.”
- “I saw that on the schedule, what were the best take-aways?”
- “I just got into this business and I want to get the word out about our sweaters.”
- “Very cool, what we’re you doing before?”
- “I worked for a manufacturer who specialized in heavy machinery.”
- “Wow, that’s quite a switch into the llama farming world. What inspired that?”
…and so on.
How to Approach Your Next Networking Event
The next time you are at an event where you don’t know a lot of people, don’t be nervous. And don’t avoid situations just because you are afraid you won’t meet anybody.
Instead, focus on having conversations with five new people. Use the Next Question™ to build rapport quickly with those that you’ve just met. You’ll have a lot more fun that way. You’ll also walk away with five new contacts who could become valuable business connections.