Frank Agin, host of Networking Rx and founder of AmSpirit Business Connections, discusses research from Jeffrey A. Hall (U of Kansas) that supports the notion that friends are built more through the quality of conversation and sharing rather than just time together.
Great Questions To Ignite “Small Talk”
Small talk kick-starts the networking process. Small talk, however, is about getting the other person talking. This begs the question: What are good questions to ask in this process?
While there is no magic, planning is paramount. Be like an attorney – prepare your questions before you ask them. In other words, have a small handful of questions ready to go. Each of these relates to the person’s life professionally or personally … Or something about their past.
From there, allow the conversation to take itself wherever. A few of these questions could include…
- What do you do? How long have you been doing it? How did you become interested in that?
- What are some of the projects or assignments you are currently working on?
- Are you from this area?
- If yes – What part?
- If no – What brought you here?
- Outside of work, what occupies you? How did you become interested in that?
- What are some business or community organizations you are involved with?
These will give you a start. From here you might want to formulate your own series of questions. Again, there is no magic. It is simply a matter of planning for how you will get and keep them talking.
Why Is There An Apprehension Towards “Small Talk”?
For many, the thought of engaging in “small talk” can make them anxious. It comes down to one thing – FEAR. Fear of being rejected. Fear of having nothing to contribute. Fear of getting stumped (or running out of conversation). Fear of getting stuck in a conversation with, well, that stranger that Mom warned you about.
FEAR NOT! The strangers your mother warned you about are no longer interested. You have things to contribute and with a little planning and practice you will never get stumped (and if you do, there is a way out).
As for rejection, know this: Everyone has this fear. EVERYONE. Even the most well connected, confident person will tell you that deep down inside, they have this apprehension. If everyone has this fear, then everyone will welcome you coming up and jumping into conversation with them.
So make someone’s day. Engage in some “small talk” with them.
The Golden Rule in Action
No doubt, when interacting with others at networking events you are hopeful of getting things … clients, important contacts, and useful information. Understand this: They are too. You can make an indelible impression on them by finding some way of helping them – even if only in a small way. So as they talk, run whatever they are saying through a filter that queries: “How can I add value to this person?” This is the Golden Rule of Networking – Give first and get second.
There is nothing that says that you have to help them right there and then. If you can help them in that moment, great. If not, do not despair.
Just understand that you make the most of building that connection by trying to find some way you can add value to them later. It might be a referral. It might be a contact. It might be useful information for them.
The United Kingdom has had a longstanding milk distribution system. Milkmen in small trucks bring the milk in bottles to each country house. Early in the 20th century, these bottles had no top, giving birds easy access to the cream on top.
The titmice and the robins capitalized most on this opportunity, quickly learning to siphon off the cream from the bottles.
In the 1940s dairies began to install aluminum seals on milk bottles, effectively preventing the birds from gaining access.
Other than an occasional few, the robins as a species never learned how to get around the bottle cap and were foiled (no pun intended) from getting at the milky cream.
Why? After all, robins and titmice are similar in size and physical characteristics. The difference was in how the birds interacted within their own species.
Robins are individualistic, self-serving and territorial birds. Rather than cooperate, they chase each other off when approached.
Titmice, on the other hand, are communal birds, relying heavily on other titmice for survival. Through this mutual dependency, they cooperate and collaborate, quickly learning from each other and adapting accordingly.
In short, the titmice won the battle against the aluminum caps because they learned from one another, while the self-serving robins, unwilling to share information, found themselves denied access to the sweet cream.
The lesson here is simple: Birds that flock, like titmice, learn faster, evolve more quickly, and increase their chances of survival. This is true for you as well. When you interact with others, you learn – new information, new techniques, and new ways of helping others succeed.
So, in short, build a network of titmice, not robins.
In addition to the types of people in your network, you need to consider the extent to which you know people in your network.
In Getting A Job, author and sociologist Mark Granovetter found that 56% of people found jobs through personal contacts. Not surprising. After all, it is not what you know, but who you know.”
The surprise was that the personal contacts used to obtain these jobs were not family or friends – “close ties”. Rather, most could be classified as “weak ties”. 55.6% reported that they saw their “job-producing” contact only occasionally and 27.8% saw their contact only rarely.
So, when it comes to job hunting – or finding clients – weak ties tend to be more important than strong ties.
Why? Because close ties tend to occupy the same world as you do. A spouse or close friend may share many of the same network contacts as you and is likely to only refer or connect you to people you already know.
Mere acquaintances, or “weak ties”, on the other hand, are much more likely to know people that you do not. While you might share a small overlap in networks, most of the people they know are completely unknown to you.
The take-away? Do NOT rely solely on close ties to fortify your network. A better means is to associate with people you don’t know well – the person from work that you know casually from meetings or trips on the elevator; the person you see every week at church but, beyond a name, you know little else about.
From a networking perspective, the most valuable people aren’t those closest to you. In fact, the more people you know who aren’t close to you, the stronger your position becomes.
In summary, the quality of your relationships matters and one measure of quality is the strength or weakness of the tie. Having lunch with your long-time best buddy can be fun but does little to build your network. If you want to build your network, have lunch with someone you know … but not that well.
Networking is simply human interaction and it has been with us since the beginning of time. These human interactions are really just the relationships we have with one another. How we connect. Some connections are passing. Some connections are more lasting. Some connections are seemingly lifelong.
Given this, networking is, more or less, really just human behavior. Talking. Listening. Understanding. Being empathetic, encouraging, inspiring, smiling, laughing, and being a friend. Thus, all human behaviors involving other people are relationship-based and is networking.
The wonderful thing about human behavior is that there are patterns to it. While the patterns may not be perfectly predictable – as you might find with a chemical reaction or a physics experiment – there are patterns generally there.
Whenever there are patterns, however, there is curiosity. And whenever there is curiosity, you will find people of science trying to explain the patterns through studying, observing, and examining them.
Human behavior involving our relationships is no different. The social sciences – sociology, psychology, and economics, just to name a few – for years have examined how humans relate to one another, both personally and professionally.
If you think about it, considering all these different options and orders, there are literally dozens (if not hundreds) of different 30-second commercials for you. So, do not stop at just one. Rather, select a handful of the ones that you feel are the most powerful for you and where you are the most comfortable saying them. Go with these.
Like anything, however, you will not get good at delivering your 30-second commercials without preparation, planning and practice.
Write Them: Using something as basic as a small note pad or 3×5 cards, neatly write or type your commercials for future reference.
Review Them: Once you have them written out, keep them handy so that you can practice or review them from time to time (just a few minutes each week is plenty).
Use Them: When someone then asks, “Who are you?”, do not hesitate. Have the courage to launch into one of your 30-second commercials (picking the appropriate one for the time and place).
Refine Them: Your 30-second commercials are always a work in process. You should look for ways to update them to make them more clear or better represent you.
An effective 30-second commercial is good, but having more than one is better. You have a lot to offer and it won’t all fit in one commercial.
No two people are the same and no two situations are the same. Thus, it only stands to reason that you have different messages to fit different situations and people.
Plus, if you consistently say the same thing, it eventually becomes “white noise.” Don’t fall into the “one size fits all” trap. Consider the following:
1) Develop a variety of Message Bodies – some informative or educational, others flippant or amusing, still others something with a little shock value (where you really want to grab some attention quickly).
2) Vary the reason WHY people should refer you. What information about you or your company will instill confidence and boost your credibility? What makes you uniquely qualified or sets you apart?
3) Vary the request. In some settings you can outright ask for people to refer you clients. In others, ask for a connection to a strategic partner (an accountant or attorney, perhaps). Or maybe you need to ask for information (such as details on networking events, job transition groups or background on people).
To summarize, make your 30-second commercials effective by having different MESSAGE BODIES, relying on different things to establish CONFIDENCE, and altering the REQUEST.
The order in which you present this information can vary. The above framework is a suggested guide. It is not an ironclad rule of thumb. Lead with something to inspire CONFIDENCE or, perhaps, your strong definite REQUEST, or even an amusing MESSAGE BODY.
It does not matter how you slice or dice the framework. The key is conveying the message with all the bits and pieces in about 30 seconds.
Now clearly articulating WHO you are, WHAT you do and WHY you are uniquely qualified is nice. However, in a sense, it is like having a souped up car with no wheels. To complete your 30-second commercial, you need to clearly state WHAT it is you need.
I hear a lot of 30-second commercials and many of them have a weak finish. This is because they have a wimpy ASK or request. The best way to illustrate this is through an example … an example of what NOT to do. Do not make your HOW statement something like, “A good referral for me is someone in transition or not happy with the direction of their career.” Rather, here is a better example.
“If you know of someone in transition or not happy with the direction of their career please introduce me to them.”
The main difference between these two is that the second has a “call to action.” If you see or know of this, please send it my way … Or give me their number … Or invite them to my seminar.
The first example, “A good referral for me is someone in transition or not happy with the direction of their career” gives the same information, but it leaves someone wanting to say, “That’s nice.”
It is like my kids. They will say, “Dad, I am hungry.” And my response is, “Thanks. That is good to know.” They know now they need to make a Strong Definite Request. “Dad, can you cook me Mac-n-Cheese?” They are asking for action, which is far more powerful.