Business networking: How to talk to strangers at a business event?
Recently, I’ve had several clients admit they find networking a challenge. How should one start a conversation with strangers? Social anxiety is high as we’re out of practice due to Covid restrictions. Below are 5 steps and several tips to help you “work the room.”
(1) Find someone who wants to meet you!
First, stand tall and tell yourself that everyone wants to meet new people. (OK, it may not be 100% true, but if they came to a networking event, let’s assume it is.)
Second, find someone who wants to meet you. When you enter the event, eyes naturally turn to see who arrived. Catch those eyes and smile; as if to say, “Thanks for noticing me.” If they’re busy, you don’t need to interrupt but walk over when there is an opportunity.
At big events, newcomers are often ignored. Look for the lone soul pretending he’s reading something important on his phone. Believe me, he’s hoping someone will come over and talk with him, so this is the perfect chance to make your move.
No loners, then head to the bar or buffet. You can start-up a conversation with others while they collect their drinks and food. Drunk people will often talk to you (maybe more than you want.) With food and drink in your hands, you can join an existing partially filled table.
Maybe you’re young and single, and worried approaching someone at a business networking event will feel like a sexual come-on. This can be awkward (or interesting), depending on your situation. As a married woman, I find it easier to start by approaching other women, older men, or those dressed in a unique way.
You can also use the event organizers to open doors for you. They tend to be super networkers and may be hidden in a group but persist. You can thank them for the invitation or the event planning. Organizers will likely start introducing you to others. It’s their job and they’re usually good at it.
(2) Smile & introduce yourself.
Now you have someone to talk to, so let’s get started. Smile and look at the person you’re talking with. Don’t just look at their face, look at the expression on their face and say something simple like, “Hello, I don’t think we’ve met yet, I’m Kimberly VanLandingham,” while reaching out for a handshake. Anyone will feel complimented by your approach and will naturally respond by introducing himself.
If you prefer a more creative response, try adding a compliment. For example –
“Love your red dress! Hello, I’m Kimberly.”
“That’s an interesting watch/tie. Is there a story behind it? I’m Kimberly by the way.”
“Wow, those mushrooms look amazing.”
“Have you tried their white wine?”
TIP: Wear something unique to give people the excuse to talk with you.
(3) Use the event to find common ground.
The hardest part is over. The ice is broken, now let’s get curious.
Instead of talking about the weather, look for “common ground.” Common ground is simply a topic where you and the other person have something in common – shared experiences or interests. Try using the event to find something real to discuss:
“Have you been to this event before?”
“What did you think of that last speaker?”
“Are you a speaker? What are you planning to talk about?”
“Do you have a booth? Are you in sales? What are you selling?”
“What did you think of the show?”
(4) Be curious to get them talking.
You can also search for common ground beyond the event. Get curious about the person in front of you. Ask them questions, anything from work interests to personal interests. People like to talk about themselves. I’ve come across such interesting people with amazing hobbies this way. Here are a few phrases:
“Where are you from?”
“What company do you work for?
“What do you do?” “Are you focused in a certain area?”
“Have you found time for a holiday yet this summer?”
“Did you catch that football game last night?”
I know what you’re thinking. This sounds like small talk. And, it is if you’re just filling the air with words. It’s not small talk, if you’re trying to get to know the person. The key is to be truly curious and interested.
TIP: Really listen to their answers and ask added related questions. Use active listening skills like eye contact, nodding, and mirroring (repeating their last few words) to keep them talking.
(5) Move on.
When it’s time to move on, make a polite excuse, exchange contact information, and say your last words. Here are some examples –
- Polite excuse
“It’s been lovely meeting you. I’m headed for another drink/plate of food.”
“It’s been so nice meeting you. I’m afraid I have to excuse myself, as nature calls.”
“I would love to hear more, but I told myself that I would try to meet at least 5 people at this event.”
- Card exchange – Don’t miss an opportunity to build your contacts.
“Here’s my business card.”
“Do you have a business card?”
“Would you like to connect on LinkedIn or Zing? If so, may I take a photo of your badge, so I have the correct spelling of your name?”
- Final words – These are the most likely words to be remembered, so make them count. Ask yourself, what do I want to happen next with this person. Then, build the bridge.
For example, if they are a potential customer, make a polite offer, “If you find yourself in need of some international communication training, don’t hesitate to give me a call. Good luck with the rest of the show!”
If they seem like a nice person, but there’s no immediate business fit, you can always say, “I hope our paths cross again. Thanks so much for your time!”
If they’re a desperate jobseeker (common at networking events), wish them luck with their search.
If they’re not very nice (meaning rude), you can just leave after making the polite excuse. There’s no need to share your contact details if you don’t want to.
In summary, networking is what you make of it.
Just like everything else, a networking event is what you decide it will be. If you think they’re full of boring and scary people, they are. If you think they’re fantastic places to meet interesting people, they are. Pump yourself up with the right mindset.
Start with easy events. Smaller events, those where you know a few people, and those where you have a real interest are a great place to start. These steps and phrases are designed to inspire your own words. You don’t need to follow each one or create a script. Just be yourself and be curious.
What do you have to lose? Nothing. What do you have to gain? New friends, new business contacts, new ideas, a new job, a fun evening and more confidence. 🙂
Kimberly VanLandingham is the CEO, trainer and strategist for European Market Link Sarl, including Presentation Training Switzerland. She facilitates live and online training courses in cross-cultural communications, international public speaking, and cross-border growth. Kimberly has over 20 years experience leading business growth at the DuPont company, has a masters in Cross-Cultural Communications, and has been helping clients with international growth and communications for the last 10 years.