For many people, the mere thought of networking can cause anxiety.
Not all of us can be naturally charming with perfect, funny conversation starters at the ready. However, networking can yield incredible results and is worth doing, even though it’s hard. It is people who will give you every opportunity you get in life, and the more great people that you know, the more chance you have of being in the right place at the right time for a great opportunity.
The right conversation with the right person can open doors to opportunities that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible.
For example, networking can lead to interesting, new projects and rewarding professional relationships. Having a robust professional network can even catapult you to the next, pivotal step in your career. You might be saying to yourself, “I don’t know how to network,” or “I feel awkward about networking because I’m bad at small talk.”
Thankfully, there’s more to networking than just funny conversation starters (though they do help!). Keep reading below for some advice that may help you get better at networking, including some interesting, humorous, and work-appropriate conversation starters.
Making a virtual introduction
Networking is all about building relationships. That sounds easy for some people, but for others, the idea of approaching someone you might not know and trying to start a conversation can be nerve wracking.
If you don’t feel comfortable approaching someone in person, you can start by introducing yourself via e-mail or LinkedIn. That way, you can take your time with crafting just the right message. Plus, you can connect with people who might not live in your area but who you could gain valuable insights from virtually.
During an introductory message, you can first briefly introduce yourself. Specifically, think about how your job, projects, or interests can help you build common ground with the other person; why is it worth their time to read your message?
Are you both computer programmers? Do both of you share an interest in social media marketing? Did you read an article the other person wrote that you find interesting?
Close the message by stating why you are reaching out to them. It’s extremely important to craft a message that is concise; people skim their emails, spending mere seconds reading each one, and you don’t want to lose someone’s attention by sending them an essay. Here’s an example of a conversation starter you can send:
My name is Riley. I’m currently HR generalist at a large nonprofit in Seattle, and I recently read an article you published about creating professional development opportunities for staff members with limited resources. I thought it was fascinating since I’m really striving to improve staff training at my org. Would you be open to me asking you a few questions about your career path and work?
Thank you so much,
Hatch a networking plan
There are abundant opportunities for networking in person, too. For example, you can search for interesting events on websites like MeetUp to connect with people who share your interests.
There are also professional conferences planned for nearly any field you can imagine; a quick Google search will yield plenty (for example, try searching “marketing conferences in seattle 2019” or ask someone you know in the field for a referral). Small local networking events are usually free, or cost less than $20 to attend. A larger conference will get you access to more people and bigger speakers, but cost a lot more money. Some companies will pay for you to attend, especially if you can pitch your boss on the value this conference will bring back to the team.
If you’re planning on attending one of these kinds of events soon, where you may be approaching someone you don’t know, here are some funny conversation starters you can use to break the ice:
- If your LinkedIn headline was honest, what would it say?
- What five historical or fictional characters would you invite over to dinner and why? What would you have for dinner?
- If I called one of your parents for a reference check, what would they say about you?
- How would you describe your job to a toddler?
Funny conversation starters don’t work for everyone. If it feels awkward to you, don’t do it. It is better to be sincere and interested in the other person than to try to come off as the funniest person in the room if that’s not who you are.
Other good questions you can use to get the conversation going are:
- What’s the biggest challenge you’re facing at work right now?
- Do you have any favorite blogs or podcasts about ___ that you love or recommend?
- What did you think of ____ [the last speaker, the keynote, etc]?
Networking one-on-one and funny conversation starters
If you aren’t attending a conference soon, you can still create your own networking opportunities. You can use the template above to invite someone from your office or who you know through a friend to meet in person over coffee or lunch.
This strategy works particularly well for those who are more shy or introverted because it lends a more intimate setting for a personalized conversation. It also allows for you to have more control over where and when you meet, and how much time you have to talk.
Wherever you may be meeting people, you can make sure your conversation is productive by entering it with the right mindset. You want to be as helpful to the other person as they are to you. Great relationships, both professional and personal, flourish from building common ground, so try getting to know the other person first. If it is useful to you, you can prepare questions to ask the person ahead of time, such as:
- What is your favorite part of your job?
- What is the most challenging part of your job?
- What was your path to your current job like?
- What were the most useful skills or knowledge areas for you to be successful in your current job?
- What is it like working at your company?
- What do you like to do outside of work?
- What would people find surprising about your job?
- What did you not expect about your current job, and how did you adjust to it?
- What are your favorite ways to stay up to date on the most current trends in this field?
It’s important that the conversation flows organically. Focus on learning as much as you can about the other person, but also feel free to talk about yourself; have a few key points prepared in case the questions are turned back on you. A few topics you should prepare to talk about could be your job and responsibilities, your current projects and hobbies, as well as expand on your future goals. And it’s totally okay to get off topic from just work!
How to follow up
After your conversation, it may be helpful to collect a business card if you’re meeting for the first time in person. Having their contact information will help you follow up with them later to solidify your initial connection. It’s best to follow up with someone, usually by email, within a day or two of meeting them. Your follow-up message should indicate who you are (to jog their memory), how you met, something about the conversation you had, and something to start a new conversation in the future. A follow-up email can read something like:
This is Kelly Anderson, the technical recruiter from Albright Solutions. It was a pleasure meeting you at the conference this weekend during the Women in Leadership panel. I found our conversation about inclusive workplace really refreshing; I’m still thinking about it today!
I know you’re an expert on this topic and I loved the insight you shared with me. If you’re ever in the area again, I’d love to have coffee with you. Is there anywhere on the internet I can read more of your work? Are there any resources you recommend for someone who would like to learn more about this topic?
Networking is a crucial tool where you truly “get what you give.” Every connection you make plants a seed, and you can nourish these relationships be tending to them regularly. You never know how or when a conversation with a stranger can bloom into your next big career move!