Networking Tips

Small talk at a networking event conversation

What am I supposed to talk about during a networking event conversation? Most people feel uncomfortable about networking because of the pressure to hold interesting conversations with strangers. In everyday life, we often keep small talk neutral and safe by focusing on the weather. However, discussing the weather doesn’t sound like the right topic on a networking event, and you also don’t want to jump right into business opportunities either just after shaking hands. So once you open a conversation, what do you talk about at a networking event?

Small talk at a networking event conversation:

Before you can start talking about business or any kind of objective you may have, start with any small-talk that you can think of, preferably relevant to the event. Some opening questions you can keep in the back of your mind include:

  • If there is a speaker at the event, talk about that speech and ask what the other person found interesting about it.
  • When a club, company or industry body organises the event, ask how they are connected to that organisation or what made them interested in visiting.
  • If the above is not applicable, you can say something like: ‘Do you come often to these events, or are you new (like me)?

All of the above conversation starters have one thing in common: they create bonding because you talk about motivation; in this case, the motivation to go to this event. Even if they are not that strongly motivated to go, or the truth is that people were asked by their bosses to attend.

Motivation connects better and more profoundly than asking for someone’s business title, which is a mere exchange of information.
The beauty of talking about motivation compared to the weather, is that motivation relates to drive, a strong emotion. That opens new trains of thought you can continue talking about. In contrast, the weather is a given, and we can only commiserate bad weather or enjoy good weather, and we already know other person likely prefers good weather too.

You can wait with the number one question in networking event conversations, which is: ‘so what do you do?’ it will be asked at some point anyway. Your opening is stronger if you build comfort first before you move on to ‘what do you do?’ because people will feel more at ease with you, which benefits later stages of the conversation.


Show professional thought leadership:

Chances are something is happening in your industry. Whether it is a new trend in approach to X-goal or solving Y-problem, whether there is a new governmental regulation changing the game, two parties merging, an industry body organising an award or charity dinner. Whatever it is, something is happening in your industry. If you don’t know what is buzzing, hop online and find out. Perhaps there is a blog for your industry to keep yourself informed.

Didn’t find any good blog for your industry? You may think you have found nothing, but you have actually found a goldmine. You can start this new blog and become a thought-leader in your industry. This will make you a networking-magnet with all the perks that come with that. You can even say this intention at networking events: ‘I intend to start a blog on the latest developments in X-industry. What would you think are the most relevant topics to cover?’ you will get an overload of ideas, and likely a few instant followers as well.

If the idea of starting a blog doesn’t fancy your interest, you can simply ask: What do you think would be the future developments in X-industry?’ Or you could ponder about whether transformations in other industries would apply to your industry as well. For example: ‘would you think that artificial intelligence may solve some problems in our industry?’ (where ‘artificial intelligence’ can be swapped for any other relevant development that may influence your industry, such as global warming or digitalisation etc.)

The point is: the conversation lifts from exchanging titles on business cards to talking about exciting developments in your industry. This way, you are showing thought leadership and are instantly a respected conversation partner, no matter how ‘high-up’, successful or influential you are in that industry – taking this approach will undoubtedly help you become influential and successful in that industry. Last but not least, it is a more fun conversation, as well. Once it comes to the ‘what do you do’, your actual title or position will be shining within the thought leadership you have just shown.


But what if I happen to talk with people in other professions?

Yes, I hear you say: ‘I usually attend networking events with people from lots of industries, not just my own. I am more interested to network with people outside my industry than within.’
For example, you are an accountant and network to get more clients, and therefore rather attend networking events where there are people from different industries who might need an accountant, instead of attending networking events for accountants. Whilst I’d still recommend also to attend those networking events for accountants, I get your point.

In that case, my advice is twofold. Firstly, keep the answer to the inevitable ‘what do you do’ relevant, specific and short, then focus more on the other person than on yours. If they feel they are being valued, it shines on you too, and the attention will be returned to you moments after. I will focus more on the ‘what do you do’ in a future blog post.

Second, do apply all of the above about current trends in X-industry, but rephrased as questions for your conversation partner. So if you are an accountant and meet a freelance consultant (who may need an accountant or financial advice), ask open questions. For example, you can ask about what is happening in consultancy (or whichever industry your conversation partner is active in).

This approach works consistently, across industries, and within industries, across peers and people in different brackets of hierarchy. Even if there is no business opportunity visible (yet), people do want to connect. A solid connection can go a long way.


Bonus tip on networking event conversations:

It is okay to ask for clarification when chatting away at a networking event. Chances are your conversation partner is specialised in a niche that you have no clue about, and that is okay. I often see people nod politely if they don’t understand (in some cultures that is just how things are done – in which case you can skip this bonus tip). If it is not clear what the other person is talking about, do show interest by asking. It shows you care, and it helps them shape up their ‘what do you do’ answer too.

Plus you learn about a nice you may not even have known existed. Asking questions about that industry and what they do and what is happening in their industry doesn’t come across as ‘dumb questions’, but it shows interest and courage to ask. After all, you couldn’t be expected to have known everything about any niche, and at least someone is listening.


A final thought on small talk at networking events:

This is why I love networking events: every time a new world opens up that I didn’t have a clue about even existed. And I get taught about their industry directly from the experts in the field, for free. Have I won you over yet why it is fun to go to networking events? Or even warmed you up a tiny bit? Stay tuned; there is a whole lot more to networking.

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